North Korea detains US tourist: Was his crime leaving behind a Bible?

Jeffrey Fowle reportedly left a Bible in his hotel room. He would be the third American known to be in the custody of North Korea, which is sensitive to outside influences, including Christianity.

An American tourist has been detained in North Korea, apparently for leaving a Bible in his hotel room.

North Korea – the authoritarian hermit state that has been opening up to international tourism but which remains hypersensitive to outside influences, including Christianity – announced Friday it had detained an American, Jeffrey Edward Fowle, for having “perpetrated activities … which did not fit his stated purpose of visiting our republic as a tourist.”

Mr. Fowle would be the third American known to be in North Korean custody.

Fowle’s illegal activity was later reported to have been leaving a Bible behind in his hotel room, according to Japan’s Kyodo News Agency. No additional information was released on Fowle, who according to Kyodo was detained in mid-May after entering the country in late April.

Fowle joins Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in 2012 after being found guilty of trying to establish an underground Christian missionary network inside North Korea.

The third American in North Korean custody is Matthew Todd Miller, who entered North Korea in April on a tour organized by a New Jersey travel agency. North Korea announced in late April that Mr. Miller entered the country on April 10 and proceeded to destroy his tourist visa and demand asylum.

The North’s Kim regime, currently led by Kim Jong-un, grandson of the communist state’s founding “great leader” Kim Il-sung, is better known for illicit activities including money laundering, drug trafficking, and even a black market in human organs. But in recent years the state has sought to expand tourism – primarily from China, but open to Americans as well.

The State Department periodically warns Americans against visiting North Korea, noting the absence of civil protections in the totalitarian state and the fact that the United States has no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

That travel advisory was renewed last year after an 85-year-old American tourist was detained when the North Koreans discovered the tourist was a Korean War veteran who had trained anti-communist fighters.

The tourist, Merrill E. Newman of Palo Alto, Calif., was charged with war crimes and held for a month but was released on what the North said was humanitarian grounds considering Mr. Newman’s age.

Last updated in May, the State Department’s travel advisory warns that US citizens visiting North Korea have been “subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention.”

A recent United Nations report on the North Korean government’s human rights record lists a broad range of violations but underscores the regime’s hostility to religion and to Christianity in particular. The report notes that Christianity is considered “a tool of Western and capitalist invasion.” Other North Korea analysts say religion is seen to be a threat to the personality cult of the Kim regime.  

It is not yet clear if Pyongyang will consider the crime of leaving a Bible in a hotel room as grave as Mr. Bae’s transgression of clandestine proselytizing, which resulted in a 15-year sentence.

But Fowle will no doubt be hoping that his Bible drop isn’t considered as serious as the crime of the South Korean Baptist missionary who last week was sentenced to life in one of the North’s notorious labor camps. His crime? Seeking to establish a string of underground churches in North Korea.

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