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Who is Jeffrey Fowle, the American just freed from North Korea?

Jeffrey Fowle.
Jeffrey Fowle.
(City of Moraine, Ohio)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Tuesday afternoon, the State Department announced that Jeffrey Fowle, an American who has been held for months in North Korea, is being released into American custody. It's great news. But who is Fowle, and why was he being detained? Here's a guide to what happened — and what North Korea might be thinking.

Fowle was detained for distributing a bible

Fowle is a 56-year-old city worker from the Dayton, Ohio area. He was arrested in mid-May 2014 in North Korea, allegedly while part of a tour group in North Korea. (The country allows regular, privately operated tour groups under heavy supervision from state security.)

Fowls was arrested for an act that North Korea defines as "contrary to the purpose of tourism": leaving a Christian bible at a club for North Korean sailors. North Korea is very hostile to organized religion, which it considers a threat to the official state orthodoxy and system. The closest the state has to an official religion is really more like fascist leader-worship of the ruling Kim family, as the below video explains:

By smuggling in and distributing a bible, Fowle was challenging the official ideology of the North Korean government and crossing one of the country's brightest red-lines for foreign tourists. While most Americans who visit North Korea do so safely, some who've attempted to preach or distribute Christian literature have been imprisoned, sometimes for long periods, and only released after heavy intervention from the US government.

The North Korean government allowed Fowle to do some press, like this CNN interview, while imprisoned. In these appearances, Fowle apologized for his actions and pleaded for leniency, citing his wife and three children at home in Ohio. Now, he's been released.

There are still two more Americans detained in North Korea

The State Department greeted Fowle's release warmly, saying it was a "positive decision" on Pyongyang's part. However, it also cautioned that "we remain focused on the continued detention of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller and again call on [North Korea] to immediately release them."

Bae and Miller are in bad shape. While Fowle was never officially sentenced, Miller was sentenced to six years of hard labor just this September. Bae is currently serving a 15-year term.

It's not clear why North Korea decided to release Fowle just after sentencing Miller. According to Scott Snyder, the Director of the Program on US-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, North Korea sent Miller to prison in a bid for American attention. In Snyder's view, Pyongyang is attempting to negotiate concessions related to its nuclear program, and wants to use Miller and Bae as leverage.

So why release Fowle, then? As Snyder notes, North Korea has been waffling over the detained Americans for a while — for example, twice inviting an American envoy to Pyongyang to negotiate for Bae's release and then rescinding the invitation.

Snyder blames this on "apparent internal confusion inside North Korea," but we'll never really know. That's the ultimate dilemma of diplomacy with North Korea: even when they do something that seems conciliatory such as releasing Fowle, it's hard to be sure why they're doing it.

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