Fowle spoke with this newspaper Friday, the first day he talked publicly about his ordeal.
He said he was “rushed and not thinking very clearly. I kind of panicked. That almost assured me of getting caught.”
“With my faith in God I thought I could deliver the Bible there and God would take care of the rest,” he said, noting that he kept his plans for leaving the Bible a secret. “… God had a different plan obviously.”
Fowle’s early May arrest and captivity made him one three U.S. citizens detained by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It also set off a chain of events that caused his loved ones heartache, prompted extensive diplomatic efforts to secure his freedom, and jeopardized his employment of 26 years with the city of Moraine — and with it his family’s financial security — before his surprising release Oct. 21.
He talked with regret about the decision – which he made against the advice of his wife, Tatyana, a native of the former Soviet Union — to travel in late April to a country with which the U.S. has no diplomatic relations. But it was something he felt compelled to do, calling it “a personal Evangelic trip.”
“Being a Christian I am trying to raise my family along the Christian path, using principles that Jesus outlined,” the Beavercreek High School graduate said. “I had a strong motivation to help the Christians in the DPRK. In hindsight, it was putting my family at risk and putting me at risk, and ended up causing quite a hardship for the people around me. I regret that.
“At the time it was something I felt I had to do. Being Christian, Christ tells us to take the Bible to all corners of the world. And I felt compassion for the people of the DPRK. I felt that was a natural target of mine, my efforts to take the gospel to different parts of the world … I would not do it again, nor would I recommend it for other people.”
Fowle said that in the 1990s he became motivated to help Christians in famine-swept North Korea. In the latter part of that decade, Fowle said he sent a $500 check for famine relief efforts to the country’s United Nations ambassador.
“Since then, I’ve read reports on the persecution of the Christian community there…. even to the point of execution in some instances,” he said. “My heart went out to the Christian community.”
Fowle saw that a Korean tour group offered an extensive tour for the first time along the country’s coast.
“This kind of trip really appealed to me,” Fowle added. “That was my main purpose for going there. Because as I was preparing for this trip, I thought I could serve the Christian community as well. So I thought I would get Korean language Bibles instead of it being an English Bible. My intention was leaving it behind, hiding (it) somewhere for the Christians to find it and put it to use in their community and at their underground church.”
Two days after he left the Bible, tour guides asked the group if anyone left anything in the nightclub. When it became known a Bible was found, Fowle said he admitted to leaving it.
“At that time they let me finish the tour, I wasn’t taken into detention at that time,” he said.
Two days later – on May 7 – while going through customs at the airport to gain a tour extension to China, Fowle said he was taken into custody.
“They took me into a backroom in the airport,” he said. “They showed me the Bible and said, ‘Is this your Bible?’ I said, ‘Yes, that’s mine.’ That’s all I said and they said, ‘You have to come with us.’ ”
At that point, he thought, “Boy this is not going according to plan. I’m in trouble now. I could be here for a few weeks or a few years or more. I had visions of 15 years. I didn’t panic and try to run away. I just knew I was in deep trouble at that point.”
Held in a hotel room, Fowle said he was given three meals a day, but spent at least 23 hours in isolation each day. It was those initial days in detention, he said, that were the “worst part of the whole experience.”
“I was in information blackout, completely for the first few weeks,” he said. “Even up until the final day I didn’t understand most of what was going on. But the first few days and weeks were the worst. I had visions of my wife not knowing anything.”
The tour operator soon got word about Fowle’s capture to the U.S. and his family.
“So Tatyana knew right away, but I didn’t know that,” he said. “I had visions of the family falling apart, finances going to pot. Tatyana not being able to pay the bills, because I always took care of that.”
Upon learning of her husband’s detainment, Tatyana Fowle said she experienced myriad emotions.
“I had all different kind of feelings,” she said. “I was angry. I was understanding. It was just all coming to me at the same time. But of course I was very depressed and very sad because I didn’t know what to expect in the future. ”
Her immediate concern was for their three children — Alex, 13, 11-year-old Chris and Stephanie, 9 — and how they would cope in their father’s absence.
“I didn’t want him to go. I told everybody, I didn’t want him to,” she added “…But he has a strong will and if he wants to do it, he will do it anyway.”
After more than a month in detention, Fowle met with the Swedish ambassador, lifting some of his deeper concerns. Fowle said he was repeatedly questioned during his detainment but never physically harmed.
When North Korean authorities came to get Fowle for his release on Oct. 21, he thought he was being taken for a “prosecutorial procedure” and was “blindsided” by his freedom.
Aboard a U.S. military plane heading home, Fowle said he was accompanied by several plain-clothed Department of Defense employees carrying sidearms, but he was never debriefed by government officials.
Looking back on the experience, Fowle said:
“It’s a negative situation, but there’s some good things that’s come out of this. I’ve got a deeper appreciation for my family – my children and my wife – my friends and colleagues. When you have something that’s forced to be taken away from you, it makes you appreciate it more than you would have otherwise.”