As dire as it remains, the situation of a West Carrollton man detained by North Korea for more than a month might actually be improving, one local observer said Monday.
“At least they’re acknowledging that they detained him, and they’re acknowledging that he is officially being held by the government,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. “And so in that sense, he is at least being diplomatically available.”
Jeffrey Edward Fowle, 56, a street maintenance employee for the city of Moraine, has been in North Korea since late April and has been detained since at least mid-May. It’s unclear what specific charges he faces, but reports from Asia have said he was detained after allegedly leaving a Bible in his motel room.
Most recently, reports from North Korea say Fowle may soon face charges and a trial there. The state North Korean news agency did not specify what Fowle did that was considered illegal, or what kind of punishment he might face, the Associated Press reported.
“We are aware of the new reports from North Korea regarding the formal charges against Mr. Fowle,” Lebanon lawyer Timothy Tepe said in an email Monday. “We had hoped that the matter would have been resolved differently, but have no further comment.”
Serving as a Fowle family spokesman, Tepe issued a statement June 9 saying that Fowle “was traveling to North Korea on vacation as part of a tour,” and that he “loves to travel and loves the adventure of experiencing different cultures and seeing new places.”
Tepe issued that statement with Fowle’s wife, Tanya, at his side. They did not take questions and asked for privacy. The Fowles have two sons, ages 12 and 1o, and a daughter, 8.
In a daily press briefing Monday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki reiterated the department’s desire for North Korea to free Fowle and another detained American reportedly heading toward a trial. Matthew Miller, 24, was arrested after entering the country April 10 and tearing up a tourist visa, shouting that he wanted asylum in that country, according to reports.
Psaki said the men have signed privacy waivers. Previously, State officials had said they cannot offer details about the cases because they needed waivers to do that.
Reporters at the briefing pressed Psaki to say more now that waivers have been signed, but Psaki refused, saying the waiver does not “obligate” the department to give more information.
“If you were detained, you would want us to take the best steps for your safety and security,” Psaki told one reporter.
Smith said Fowle’s situation remains dire, and he expects no overnight solution.
“To be charged in that kind of legal system is a very serious matter,” Smith said. “North Korea has its own legal system that does not operate by the rule of law, and it’s very much an autocratic and tyrannical system. He (Fowle) can’t expect the typical legal provisions and the legal protections he would get in a place like the United States, that’s for sure.”
At some point, negotiations will take place between North Korea and the United States or a representative of the U.S., he believes.
“His (Fowle’s) value is that he is an American,” Smith said. “As an American being held by a foreign country, he is a bargaining chip that might be useful in future negotiations.”
The U.S. maintains economic sanctions against Korea, and anything the latter country can use as leverage to lessen those sanctions, the nation will try to use that, Smith said.
Politicians are expressing frustration or saying little.
“I’m deeply troubled by the reports that Mr. Fowle will be formally charged in North Korea,” Sen. Rob Portman said in a statement. “ North Korea is of course a country with egregious human rights violations, and I’ll continue to work with the State Department and other entities to see that Mr. Fowle returns home safely.”
A spokeswoman for U.S. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, declined comment Monday. After news of Fowle’s detainment became public, Turner expressed concern for Fowle and said he is staying in touch with the U.S. State Department. Turner’s spokeswoman referred to those earlier statements.
A spokeswoman for Speaker John Boehner also declined comment.
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