Holiday at the Dictator’s Guesthouse

What possessed a family man from Ohio to smuggle a Bible into North Korea?

By Joshua Hunt

The Atavist Magazine, No. 54

Joshua Hunt has contributed to Harper’sThe New Yorker, The New York Times, Pacific Standard, and Playboy, among other publications. His first book, about Nike and its influence on higher education in America, will be published by Melville House. He lives in Tokyo.

Editor: Katia Bachko
Design: Thomas Rhiel, Gray Beltran
Producer: Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Muna Mire, Aviva Stahl
Photos: Maddie McGarvey
Other images: Nadja Drost, Getty Images, and courtesy of the Colombian National Police
Video: Courtesy of Jeffrey Fowle

Published in October 2015. Design updated in 2021.


On the morning of August 1, 2014, Jeffrey Fowle woke before seven in his room at a guesthouse in Pyongyang, North Korea. Soon a young woman arrived with his breakfast of rice, broth, and kimchi. She smiled as she set the tray down on the large desk at the foot of the bed, then walked out of the room and locked the door behind her. It was Fowle’s 87th day in custody.

He sat at the desk, watching a shadow play across his window. An opaque vinyl film had been applied to the glass, so Fowle could see only silhouettes walking past. That April, when Fowle had traveled to Pyongyang, he’d felt that God wanted him to help North Korea’s oppressed Christian underground. His attempt took the form of a Korean-English Bible, left behind in a bar bathroom; he was taken into custody as he tried to leave the country. Fowle poured the broth over his rice and began to eat.

An hour later, Mr. Jo, Fowle’s interpreter and minder, appeared at the door: His slacks were ironed, and he’d traded his usual polo shirt for a crisp dress shirt. “Today is the day,” Mr. Jo said. “Be ready.”

A few weeks earlier, Mr. Jo had told Fowle that he might be allowed to speak with international media. It would be his first chance to tell the world about his situation, and to remind the U.S. government that he needed help. At noon, Mr. Jo led Fowle to a conference room on the other side of the guesthouse, reminding him of his talking points along the way.

“Emphasize your desperation for wanting to get home and that your family needs you back,” Mr. Jo said. “Put some emotion into it.” He suggested that it might be good if Fowle cried. In the conference room, Fowle was seated at a long table with a couple of North Korean journalists from the Associated Press Television News. Instead of press badges, each reporter wore a pin with the smiling face of Kim Il-sung.

Some hours later, I was sitting in a coffee shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side when a report about three Americans detained in North Korea appeared on the television mounted to the wall. The first was Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American who had been held there since November 2012, when he was arrested for “hostile acts” against North Korea’s government and its young new leader, Kim Jong-un. Bae had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and appeared on the screen dressed in a gray jumpsuit with his prisoner number, 103, drawn across the left breast. He spoke stoically in Korean about his failing health.

The next prisoner was Matthew Miller, who looked shaken. He’d traveled to North Korea hoping “to speak to an ordinary North Korean person about normal things” and decided that getting arrested might afford him the opportunity. He packed notebooks filled with scrawls meant to suggest he knew U.S. state secrets and that he was a hacker with ties to WikiLeaks. At the airport in Pyongyang, he requested asylum in North Korea and was taken into custody. Speaking to APTN reporters, Miller wore a black turtleneck and the look of a guilty child. “I’m now requesting help from the American government, the citizens of America, and the world, to release me from this situation,” he told the APTN reporters, with a quiver in his voice.

Jeffrey Fowle appeared last, his demeanor a strange contrast with the two men who preceded him. He appeared relaxed, spoke calmly, and even smiled. His oversize metal glasses frames seemed to magnify the twinkle in his eye; he seemed too youthful to be 56 years old. “I’ve been treated well,” he said. Foreign missionaries working inside North Korea have faced detainment, imprisonment, and execution, yet Fowle apologized for his actions with a smirk hiding in the corner of his mouth. He looked like a man interviewing for a job, not pleading for his freedom. I didn’t know what to make of his easy manner. Confidence, naivety, and insanity all seemed like possibilities.

North Korea’s persecution of Christians dates back to 1945, when the Communist north broke away from the south. Its founding leader, Kim Il-sung, whose own father was a prominent Christian activist, leveled churches, outlawed the Bible, and killed known Christians. So ferocious was this campaign that in the six years after World War II ended, hundreds of thousands of Christians fled south. The division of the two Koreas was formalized in 1948. In 1950, Kim Il-sung’s Stalin-backed regime invaded South Korea and started the Korean War, which touched off the north’s slide into isolation. Now ruled by Kim Il-sung’s grandson, Kim Jong-un, North Korea remains openly hostile to the U.S., its preferred enemy, and to free speech and religion, which imperil the regime’s autocratic rule and the cult of personality that has helped keep the Kim dynasty in power.

Fowle seemed to have acted alone, without the support of an international missionary organization. His crime implied no grand scheme, no strategy. If he harbored pretensions to courage, they were well hidden. And yet he’d gambled his freedom for an act of protest that offered limited rewards and great personal risk. I wanted to know who he was and why he did it.

 Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang. (Photo: Corbis)


On a Saturday morning in the winter of 2014, Jeffrey Fowle woke in the dark, before sunlight stirred the dog and the dog stirred the children. He was home in Miamisburg, Ohio, in a house that sits across the street from an invisible boundary with Moraine, the city where he had worked for the public service department since 1988. In the winter, he cleared snow. In the summer, he fixed curbs and sidewalks. On Saturdays, his wife, Tatyana, worked part-time as a hair stylist. On Sundays, they took their three kids—Stephanie, 9, and his sons Alex, 13, and Chris, 11—to church.

On that winter morning, his wife left for work and the kids retreated to the yard, leaving Fowle alone in the house. A child of the Cold War, Fowle had been fascinated by America’s Communist enemies for as long as he could remember. He read obsessively about the Soviet empire and took Russian classes in college. In the 1990s, he became fascinated by North Korea, the so-called hermit kingdom, after accounts of a terrible famine appeared in the news. Recent reports about the detention of missionary Kenneth Bae, and Dennis Rodman’s visit with Kim Jong-un, sparked Fowle’s interest once more.

In the glow of his iMac, he spent hours clicking between human-rights reports that criticized North Korea and tour packages offered by travel agencies promising a journey to its heart. He turned to Amazon to browse books, selecting Escape from Camp 14 and Long Road Home, which recounted the experiences of North Korean refugees, and Only Beautiful, Please, written by a former British ambassador to the country. Then Fowle added to his basket a book called Korean for Beginners. At the bottom of the page, he noticed a selection of recommended books based on his search history. One of the titles immediately caught his attention: a turquoise Korean-English study Bible. Its gaudy color reminded him of something he’d read earlier: that North Korean schoolteachers sometimes enlist children to find underground Christians. “Go home and look for a shiny black book with strange writing on the cover,” they tell their students. “Bring it to school tomorrow.”

In the 14 years they’d been married, Tatyana Fowle had learned that she was no match for her husband’s wanderlust. In 2013, Fowle was in Russia when he ignored her pleas not to go to Mongolia alone. “The guards caught him trying to cross the border on foot at two o’clock in the morning,” she said. “They told him he could die doing that, so he found a bus full of Italian tourists and rode across with them.”

So when her husband told her he’d booked a trip to North Korea, Tatyana thought little of it. The U.S. State Department warns against travel to North Korea, but it’s not illegal to visit. The government of North Korea allows foreigners, including Americans, to enter with authorized groups. According to estimates by tour operators, as many as 8,000 Westerners visited in 2014.

Fowle chose a ten-day trip organized by Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based company, which cost about $4,000. The group would meet in Beijing and travel together to Pyongyang, where the itinerary included the “famous, ornate Pyongyang Metro” and its stations “decorated with socialist-realist mosaics and reliefs.” Then the group would enjoy a train journey that would “reveal parts of the country never before seen by foreign eyes.”

A few days before Fowle’s departure, Tatyana watched her husband pack. Among the clothes and guides to North Korea, she spotted a turquoise book.

“Please don’t bring that Bible,” she said. “If you need to bring it with you for the flight, at least leave it in Beijing.”

Fowle didn’t look up. He needed to find a spot in his luggage for a deflated basketball covered in autographs. He’d bought the ball in December, at a Harlem Globetrotter’s exhibition game in Dayton. As players signed it, he told them it might be going to North Korea. At his most optimistic, he imagined presenting it to basketball-obsessed Kim Jong-un.

“It was like he didn’t even hear me,” Tatyana told me. “He seemed so distracted. So focused, like he was packing for some important mission.”

She didn’t know that her husband had been making plans for the Bible since it arrived. He tucked a photo of the family inside the cover and wrote out his name and Tatyana’s, along with their address and telephone number. She didn’t know that he was planning to take the book to North Korea and leave it somewhere in the northern territories. Far from Pyongyang and its powerful elites, he was sure someone in the Christian underground would find it. There the Bible might serve an entire community—a community of people who would know the name, face, and family of the man who had brought them this gift.

If the authorities found it, he’d say it was his study Bible and he’d forgotten it by accident. The language workbook would be his alibi: He would claim both were materials for studying Korean. For three decades, Fowle had lived with the feeling that God had a plan for him. It was too much to consider that it might all go wrong; he was in God’s hands now.

Basketball signed by the Harlem Globetrotters. (Photo: Maddie McGarvey)


Fowle had stopped going to church when he was 12. His parents, Edward and Virginia, were Episcopalian when they married. Edward was a guidance-systems specialist in the Air Force. They lived in Florida when Fowle was born, in 1958, but a few years later, Edward was assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, outside Dayton. The family built a house in nearby Beavercreek. Virginia was a homemaker, raising Fowle and his three siblings. Each Sunday, they attended services at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

As the family settled into their new home, Edward began to have a crisis of faith. At a time when new religious movements were multiplying, he became fascinated by the Worldwide Church of God, an organization led by Herbert W. Armstrong, who had helped pioneer the use of radio and television to reach far-flung worshippers. His teachings leaned heavily on the Old Testament and British Israelism, which held that white Europeans of the British Empire descended directly from King David.

Edward quickly became serious about his new beliefs. He forbade the family from celebrating Christmas, pushing them instead toward Old Testament celebrations. In the fall of 1967, he took the children out of school and drove the family to the Pocono Mountains, to celebrate the Feast of the Tabernacles. During the festivities, Fowle’s brother, Jaime, ran through a window, slicing his eyelids open; his younger sister, Lynn, developed pneumonia. Virginia’s patience ran out, and she returned to St. Mark’s.

Despite the rift, Edward’s commitment deepened. When Armstrong said that his adherents could serve only one master, God or government, Edward left the Air Force after 13 years of service. He resigned without hesitation and without Virginia’s blessing. He continued working at Wright-Patterson as a private contractor but forfeited his pension.

The Fowle household was divided. On Saturdays, Edward dragged Jeffrey and his sister Laurie to Worldwide Church of God services. On Sundays, Virginia took Jamie and Lynn to St. Mark’s. By 1970, Jeffrey Fowle had stopped going to church altogether.

In 1980, Fowle was 22 years old and studying at the Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster, Ohio. He lived in a rented room on a farm in Ohio’s Amish country. His social life was slow, his love life nonexistent. In the evenings, he’d lay in bed and wonder what the future held for him. One night the answer came to him in a dream.

The images stayed with Fowle for decades: He was looking down on a large field, where an old-fashioned revival was taking place. A woman and her son stood nearby. To Fowle, the scene was ridiculous. “You see those holy rollers down there?” he asked them; he’d meant it as a slur.

Fowle heard a voice coming from behind him, and he was so sure it was God that he didn’t bother to turn and look.

“Don’t make fun of them,” the voice said. “They are sincere in what they do.”

Suddenly, Fowle rose from the ground and into a gray mist, which became a brilliant cloud that enveloped him. Passing through the mist, he felt that his sins had been cleansed. When he awoke, his pillow was wet with tears.

Fowle emerged from the experience certain that God had a plan for him. In 1983, he finished school and gave away most of his possessions. He packed what remained into his ’68 AMC Rambler Ambassador and drove to Death Valley, California, Christ’s 40 days of fasting on his mind. When he reached the desert, he drove his car deep into a desert canyon and pinned a note behind one windshield wiper, along with the car’s paperwork. Whoever found the vehicle, he wrote, could have it. He wasn’t planning on coming back.

For four days and four nights he fasted and hiked, carrying a bedroll and little else. He found stoned hippies, raging bikers, and other wanderers looking for answers. When he made it back to his car, there was no message from God—only a note from the park rangers, who had returned the car’s title to the glove compartment.

Fowle worked odd jobs in California but eventually returned to Ohio. He moved in with his parents and took the Air Force officer’s examination. Weak vision disqualified him from being a pilot, but he was invited to enroll in the navigator’s course. In Texas, he began officer training but flunked out. For a few years he foundered, and then, in 1988, he found work as a semi-skilled laborer with the streets division in Moraine, a suburb of Dayton.

As Fowle’s life began to settle, he no longer felt content just reading books. He wanted to see for himself what he called the “dark corners of the world.” In 1989, he saw a TV commercial for tours to the Soviet Union. As a boy, he’d been fascinated by Soviet defector Victor Kravchenko’s 1946 book I Chose Freedom. He signed up for the trip and traveled to Leningrad, Moscow, and Turkmenistan as part of a local organization called the Dayton Friendship Force. The group often stayed with locals, which gave Fowle the sense that he was seeing what life was really like in the declining Soviet empire, right down to the minders who warned against taking unauthorized photographs. In Turkmenistan, Fowle saw the Door to Hell, a giant smoldering crater born when a natural-gas field collapsed into an underground cavern in 1971. While his coworkers vacationed in Florida, Fowle learned to water-ski on the Caspian Sea.

The USSR’s collapse didn’t dampen Fowle’s interest in the region. In 1996, he traveled to the Balkans in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, which had ended the year before. In Serbia, Fowle stayed in a house scarred by shrapnel; their guides kept a close watch to ensure that no one walked into an active minefield.

While his travels grew more ambitious, Fowle’s life in Ohio was lonely. “I had been a wallflower in high school, and in college I really hadn’t dated,” he would later say. In 1998, he decided to join an introduction service that paired American men with women from abroad.

“You don’t hear the term mail-order bride anymore,” he said. “I guess guys are ashamed to call it that nowadays, but I never understood the stigma myself.”

A catalog from the introduction company arrived, and Fowle chose an Iranian woman and several Russians to correspond with. One photograph of a kind-faced brunette named Tatyana Shoom, 15 years his junior, intrigued him more than the others. He wrote to her alternating bits of college Russian with English. She overestimated his fluency and responded with more Russian. He enlisted his former Russian-language professor for help with translation.

In the fall of 1999, Fowle visited Tatyana in her hometown of Yekaterinburg. He returned again in December. She found the American idea of organized religion strange at first. “My country was without God for 70 years,” she said.

Tatyana arrived in the U.S. on July 1, 2000. Her visa required her either to marry Fowle or return to Russia within 90 days. On her 91st day in America, the two were married.

Jeffrey Fowle at church. (Photo: Maddie McGarvey)


In April 2014, Tatyana drove her husband to the bus station in Cincinnati. After a quick goodbye, Fowle climbed onto a bus that took him to Chicago, where he boarded a flight for Beijing. The day after he arrived, Fowle and three dozen other tourists from around the world gathered for orientation. Simon Cockerell, a longtime guide with Koryo, explained the rules of travel in North Korea: no unauthorized photography; no off-color remarks about founder Kim Il-sung, his son Kim Jong-il, or the current Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un; and no pushing outside ideas on North Koreans. The next morning, Fowle and his fellow travelers caught their flight to Pyongyang. From the plane, North Korea’s rugged landscape vaguely reminded Fowle of Ohio’s cornfields. He wore black jeans and a blue dress shirt with a red tie, fidgeting uncomfortably like a child in church clothes. His leather bomber jacket hung low on the left side, sagging from the Bible’s weight.

At Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport, the group spilled out onto the tarmac, iPhones and cameras in hand. An enormous portrait of Kim Il-sung awaited them on the facade of the main terminal. The Great Leader ruled the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as North Korea is formally called, from 1948 until his death in 1994, and during that time he systematically replaced objects of worship with his own image.

Inside the terminal, Fowle approached a security officer and felt for the first time the gravity of his mission. As he handed over his luggage, he told himself to trust in God. The thought alone was not enough to comfort him. The agent worked through his bags quickly, but each time Fowle walked through the metal detector, an alarm buzzed. He emptied his pockets, but the alarm kept on. He fumbled to remove his belt. The buzzing continued.

It was too much for Fowle to take. Sweating, he reached for his left pocket and unsnapped the two buttons that held the pocket closed. If he handed the Bible over now, maybe they would believe it was just for him. Then the agent waved him ahead. Fowle grabbed his bag and stepped through, snapping the two buttons shut again. He was in.

Tourism didn’t come naturally to North Korea—it had to be invented. In 1992, an Englishman named Nicholas Bonner traveled to Pyongyang to visit a friend. The country had opened its borders to foreign visitors six years earlier, but Bonner noticed that no one was coming. The next year, he founded Koryo Tours, in partnership with the Korea International Travel Company, which is operated by the North Korean government.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had collapsed, taking with it the cheap oil that had powered North Korea’s economy. Steel mills in the northern territories slowed production, and glass factories were shuttered. Hospitals came to resemble morgues as equipment broke down, one Soviet-made part at a time. The power grid flickered into permanent decline, and the countryside was picked clean of any wood that could be burned and any plant that the stomach could hold down.

As conditions deteriorated, Koryo Tours’ business grew. In Pyongyang, well-fed elites and an air of relative stability helped the city preserve its appeal. In 1995, Koryo brought a hundred foreign tourists to Pyongyang for an International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. Muhammad Ali was among the guests, who saw professional wrestlers from North America and Japan compete before an audience of more than 150,000 people. KITC ensured that Ali and the other visitors were kept in a bubble, their sanitized view devoid of signs that the catastrophic, years-long famine was hitting its grim peak. What we now know of the Arduous March, as it was euphemistically called, is largely thanks to human-rights groups, United Nations inspectors, defectors, and Christian organizations. Because sanctions have left North Korea largely isolated from the global financial system, foreign tour operators pay KITC through banks in China, which remains a North Korean ally. In the past, even Chinese banks have been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for laundering Pyongyang’s money, some of it counterfeit, some of it related to nuclear proliferation or illicit trade.  

In 2013, North Korea began allowing foreign visitors to carry their mobile phones into the country and access the Web, via Koryolink, North Korea’s mobile service provider. The change in policy coincided with the rise of social media. Suddenly, photographs, albeit government approved, could be uploaded to Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. What mattered was that people saw something they’d never seen before: a broken-down Stalinist amusement park, preserved as though in amber.

Critics of North Korea assert that such expeditions carry a hidden cost. Despite the limits on financial institutions dealing with the regime, international funds still flow into the country through tourism, and that money often filters down to nations that are hostile to the U.S. and its allies. Some have called for a travel ban to North Korea, pointing out that the regime has contributed to Syria’s weapons program and was likely helping Iran as well. But in Fowle’s mind, his mission absolved him of complicity.

Though he felt guided by God, his movements were controlled by the government. He stepped out of the airport and onto a bus owned by the KITC, which employs the North Korean guides, minders, drivers, and videographers. On the bus, Fowle took a seat by himself. He wore a broad, toothy grin that was often directed at no one in particular. Around him others compared camera lenses and swapped stories. Fowle was assigned a roommate for the trip, a Canadian named Ken, but Fowle kept mostly to himself.

Souvenir video of Fowle’s trip. (Video: Courtesy of Jeffrey Fowle)


Pyongyang was a mass of contradictions. Children in sooty clothes chased each other down sidewalks while soldiers and students walked by in crisp uniforms. Peasants pushed broken-down oxcarts along dusty roads while nearby streets were filled with taxis. The schedule was tight, packed with visits to the restaurants, markets, parks, and monuments. The Bible never left Fowle’s jacket pocket, which bulged with its mass. At the Mansudae Grand Monument, the group placed flower arrangements at the feet of enormous bronze-colored statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and performed a deep ceremonial bow. To Fowle’s eyes, these were the churches of North Korea.

He knew from the beginning that he’d leave Pyongyang with the Bible. He had no desire to leave it in a city run by the ruling elite. From the outset, the Bible was headed for Hamhung or Chongjin, in the northeast. The farther from Pyongyang, the more open he felt the people would be to outside ideas. In the human-rights reports, he’d read stories documenting persecution of Christians in Chongjin, a city in the north of the country. He recalled a defector from outside Chongjin who told a heartbreaking story to the United Nations. The defector’s son was 20 years old when he met a Korean-American pastor. He converted to Christianity and attended secret Bible-study meetings. In 2008, agents from North Korea’s State Security Department dragged the boy from his home. Two years later, the boy’s mother heard from a friend that their son had been interrogated for six months and then sent, without trial, to a prison camp. The man told UN investigators that he knew his son was “as good as dead.” Another defector told the U.S. Senate that she’d witnessed the execution of six elderly Christians who had refused to renounce their faith. They were lined up and killed one by one, she said, by a soldier who poured molten iron over them.

Accounts like these convinced Fowle that the people of Chongjin had suffered, and that among them were a stronghold of Christians who worshipped in secrecy. At the orientation in Beijing, Cockerell had mentioned that North Koreans outside Pyongyang, particularly in the northern territories, tended to be more conservative and more distrustful of foreigners. But the warning did nothing to weaken Fowle’s resolve. God’s will, he felt, would prevail.

After three days in Pyongyang, the group headed east on a private, three-car locomotive. Outside the capital, signs of poverty were more apparent. Wood-cooker trucks, their engines jerry-rigged to run on burning wood chips, crept along like rolling barbecue pits. The 1970s Korean diesel train was immaculately preserved, with a luxurious dining car, but it sounded like a junkyard as it carried the group along the coast.

In recent years, security around foreign visitors has tightened dramatically, after an incident in 2008 in which a South Korean tourist strolled onto a military site while out for a walk and was shot to death by a soldier. At times, Fowle felt the eyes of a minder about to notice the Bible, or a penetrating glance that would divine his secret mission. The sooner he got rid of it, the sooner he could stop worrying about the North Korean guides. In Wonsan, they visited a giant railroad station, notable because in 1945, Kim Il-sung had traveled to Pyongyang from that very spot, after he was liberated from the Japanese. And they saw the small hotel where the Dear Leader had slept the night before the journey. But there was no chance to slip away. Next came Hamhung, which also provided no opportunities. There was nowhere to leave it at the Hamhung Fertilizer Factory or the city’s brutalist Grand Theatre, either.

On the evening of May 5, the train rolled into Chongjin, and a small group headed for a local pub before turning in for the night. Around nine, Fowle and several others arrived at the Chongjin Seaman’s Club. In the days when North Korea shipped much of its steel to Japanese companies, the club had been a popular drinking spot among sailors. Now it catered to foreign tourists, with a gift shop that sold delicately arranged bouquets of dried fish. It was the last stop before the group returned to Pyongyang, a fact that weighed heavily on Fowle as he sipped orange sodas and watched his fellow travelers drink and socialize. After an hour, Fowle excused himself to the restroom. It seemed as good a place as any to leave the Bible. The city sees few tourists, Fowle told himself. Once his group left, it could be days before anyone used the bathroom again.

He slipped into the men’s restroom and took in the layout—a sink and a mirror, a row of urinals, and a few stalls. He walked out and back to his seat. A few minutes later, Fowle returned to the bathroom. He was about to remove the Bible from his pocket when he saw Daniel Levitsky, a guide with Koryo Tours, washing his hands. Fowle froze. “Don’t miss the bus,” Levitsky told him on the way out.

Fowle walked into a stall and shut the door behind him. He wrenched the Bible free from his pocket. From his other pocket he pulled a sheet of newspaper and wrapped the Bible like a gift. His mind raced: What if he couldn’t make the scene look accidental? Beneath the twitchy blue light of a bare bulb, the bathroom looked so small and clean. He took a pen from his pocket and dropped it on the floor, as if training his hands to manufacture an accident. Staring at it, he wondered if it looked right. Then, in one motion, he tucked his gift beneath a wastebasket.

Hiding it, he hoped, would buy him enough time to get out of the country. Some janitor would find it days later and god would take care of the rest. If it was found, he’d deny everything. He collected himself and climbed aboard the bus. The group spent the night at the Chongjin Tourist Hotel, which, Koryo’s itinerary boasted, overlooks train tracks, “providing a great chance to observe night-time rail traffic and soak up the city’s industrial atmosphere.”

Chongjin, an industrial city located on the Sea of Japan. (Photo: AP Photo)


Fowle awoke in an anxious mood the next morning. The group headed out for a tour of a Chongjin factory, which sold candy and dinner rolls. The products sat in small piles at the end of silent conveyor belts, but they didn’t appear to have actually been produced there. The facility was as clean as an operating room. Not a single conveyer belt moved.

It was late morning when Simon Cockerell gathered the group in the parking lot outside the factory. “Did anyone leave something at the Seaman’s Club last night?” Cockerell asked.

“Oh yeah,” said Emanuel Luttersdorfer. “I left behind 3,000 renminbi in a toilet stall.”

Luttersdorfer had traveled with Koryo before and expected Cockerell to laugh. But Cockerell was silent. Another tourist doubled down on the joke, saying that he’d left his Bible behind.

“Are you serious?” Cockerell asked.

“No,” the man said. “Of course not.”

Cockerell asked again, turning to look at everyone in the group. Finally, Fowle stepped forward.

“I think I forgot my book,” he said.

“What kind of book?” Cockerell asked. His face reddened as he stared Fowle down.

“A turquoise book,” he said. “My Bible.”

Cockerell and Levitsky pulled Fowle behind one of the KITC tour buses along with a guide from the KITC named Mr. Oh. Fowle’s ideas about Chongjin, it turned out, had been wrong. Someone had found the Bible almost immediately. And rather than pass it along to some underground pastor, they turned it in, very likely in terror. A KITC representative told Cockerell about the discovery.

“How did this happen?” Cockerell asked.

Mr. Oh interjected; he was vehement that North Koreans would have no interest in a Bible. “No one believes this stuff here,” he said.

After Fowle explained what he’d done, Cockerell and Levitsky spoke with the KITC guides. The minders are responsible for the actions of the tourists they shepherd around the country. They also serve as the link between their Western guests and the state. A short time later, Cockerell found Fowle again.

“That was a really stupid thing to do,” he said. “But I think we have things worked out.”

Fowle was relieved. Later that day, at a karaoke restaurant, he clapped along with the waitresses belting out North Korean pop songs and danced with one of them, smiling broadly as he spun her around. During dinner he approached Cockerell to ask about the itinerary for the remainder of the trip. For a moment, Cockerell stared at him in disbelief.

“You really don’t get it, do you?” he said.

The next morning, as the train pulled out of Chongjin, Fowle felt like a man who had crawled out of his own grave. In less than 24 hours, he’d be out of the country and on his way home. But his fellow travelers were not impressed with what he’d done: Some gave him dirty looks, while others criticized him openly.

One of the members of the tour group told me that he asked Fowle what he’d been thinking, but Fowle “just shrugged and stared back at me with that Alfred E. Neuman grin of his.”

It was an overnight trip to Pyongyang. Fowle slept. The next morning, on the way to the airport, Mr. Oh approached Fowle and gave him a quiet dressing down. He wanted Fowle to know that actions have consequences.

At the airport, Fowle’s group cleared customs and walked onto the tarmac. Simon Cockerell had told him to expect a longer customs check because of his stunt, so Fowle wasn’t surprised to be walked through the metal detector over and over again. A few minutes later, two large North Korean men approached him. They wore black slacks, polo shirts, and serious expressions. Silently, they motioned for Fowle to follow. They led him out of the airport and placed him in the back seat of a black Volkswagen Passat. Fowle sat in the middle, with one of the men to his left and the other to his right. They looked to Fowle like mirror images of one another, right down to the way they folded their arms onto their laps. From the passenger seat, a North Korean man in Western-style clothes introduced himself as Mr. Jo and said he was going to be Fowle’s interpreter.

The car arrived at the Yanggakdo Hotel, and Fowle was ushered into an empty back room. Mr. Jo walked over with the Bible in his hand.

“Is this yours?” he asked.

A photograph of Fowle’s family, which he’d forgotten about, peeked out from behind the turquoise cover. Given how carefully he’d placed the Bible under the trash can, his grand plan to pretend that he’d dropped the book accidentally no longer seemed plausible.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s mine.”

It’s not common for Americans to go missing in North Korea, but it happens often enough to have its own protocol. Within hours the U.S. Embassy in Beijing was alerted to Fowle’s situation. Because the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, problems like these fall to diplomats based in China. A few of them have developed a specialty in dealing with North Korea, which has leaned heavily on the Chinese for support since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Beijing sent a diplomatic cable to Washington, D.C, where Linda McFadyen, a desk officer with the State Department, was assigned Fowle’s case. In 2009, McFadyen helped bring home Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two American journalists who’d been detained in North Korea after walking into the country from China. McFadyen contacted the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which serves as the “protecting power” for American citizens in North Korea. She spoke with ambassador Karl Olof-Andersson and urged him to locate Fowle and arrange for a consular visit.

Back in Ohio, Tatyana learned of her husband’s detention from her sister-in-law, Laurie, who burst into the salon where she worked and told her the news. Simon Cockerell had been calling the Fowle residence all day but couldn’t get through because of errant digging that had damaged neighborhood telephone lines. Tatyana was shocked and angry; she also realized she had suddenly become the sole breadwinner. “I didn’t have time to worry about my emotions,” she later told me. “I had to take care of the family.”

A few hours later, a liaison from the State Department spoke with Tatyana and told her that the government was doing everything possible to bring her husband home. The liaison asked Tatyana not to tell anyone outside the family; the government needed to manage the news carefully. Desperate for engagement, aid, and visits from foreign dignitaries, the North Korean government sees Americans as bargaining chips that can be used to achieve its goals and manufacture propaganda.

As soon as Fowle identified the Bible, Mr. Oh escorted him to a room on the 36th floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel. Less than an hour earlier, he’d been on his way home. Now he contemplated his grim future while looking out on the Pyongyang skyline. It was like a postcard that had been left in the sun, its colors washed out. Behind him two North Koreans cataloged his luggage, removing items like razors and nail clippers. Then a man in a military uniform stepped into the room. “You are here under investigation for this incident of leaving the Bible in the DPRK,” the man said.

A short while later, a compact man named Mr. Kim arrived in a gray two-piece uniform. Its stiff fabric glistened in the soft light. The jacket was cut in the style popularized by Mao Tse-tung. He wore a small red pin affixed to the left breast, on it an image of Kim Il-sung’s smiling face.

He was the shortest of several Mr. Kims that Fowle met, and so Fowle started calling him Short Mr. Kim. He began by asking about Fowle’s interest in North Korea and the minutiae of his life in Ohio—his work, his family, his education, and his upbringing. His tone was distant but probing, with a forced sense of informality. After 30 minutes, the mood shifted. The conversation became an interrogation.

“Who is paying you to do this?” Mr. Kim asked. He spoke calmly, but his posture grew more assertive and his eyes hardened. He seemed to sink into his suit, like a snake coiling before it strikes. “Things will be much less pleasant for you if you don’t cooperate,” Mr. Kim said. “Tell us who gave you the Bible.”

“No one sent me,” Fowle said. “I bought the Bible myself, on Amazon.”

He immediately regretted the detail. If they forced him to sign into his Amazon account, they’d see his order history, full of books by North Korean defectors and critics. Fowle tried to explain why he’d brought the Bible to North Korea. He told Mr. Jo and Mr. Kim about his dream, and about his trip to the desert. Both men seemed baffled. Mr. Kim looked vaguely disgusted.

“You’re not being forthcoming enough,” Mr. Kim said. “We’re going to transfer you someplace where the facilities won’t be as accommodating and the interrogation techniques will be harsher.”

After an hour, Mr. Kim left Fowle with a minder. There were no shackles and no bars on his window, but each minute that ticked by brought him further from the tourist he’d once been. He turned on the television and saw a report about Matthew Miller, the American who had been arrested in North Korea just a few weeks earlier. The next day, a worker arrived to look at the television. When he finished, it no longer picked up foreign channels like the BBC and Japan’s NHK. He was getting a taste of what it meant to be North Korean. His few possessions fit in a suitcase, his movements were restricted, and he had access to just three state-owned channels.

A few weeks later, a doctor was brought to examine him. Her name was Dr. Park; she gave Fowle a checkup, which consisted primarily of her placing one hand flat against his chest and thumping it with the other.

A routine began to emerge. In the mornings, a minder, Tall Mr. Kim, would arrive. He had a relaxed manner, and like Fowle, he knew a bit of Russian. The two men exchanged pleasantries and sat down to watch TV together. In the mornings, they watched exercise programs. Tall Mr. Kim would follow along with the routines and encourage Fowle to join him. In the afternoons, Short Mr. Kim would arrive. Mr. Jo explained that Mr. Kim was helping him prepare for a trial. First he would have to confess his crimes against the government of North Korea. This confession would take the form of a written document, which the two men would draft together. Each day, Fowle’s interrogator announced himself the same grating way: Instead of knocking, he rolled the backs of his fingernails against the door.

Mr. Kim expected Fowle to wear dress shirts during his interviews and to bow deeply to all North Korean officials he encountered. Some days the conversations were congenial. Others, tedious. Occasionally, they were menacing.

“No one sent me,” Fowle repeated again and again. “I came on my own.”

“That’s schoolboy logic,” Mr. Kim said. “If you don’t start cooperating, things are going to become less pleasant. It will be very bad for you if you behave like this at your trial.”

Since the truth didn’t seem to satisfy his captors, Fowle eventually invented a man named Mr. Carter who, he said, ran a secretive underground missionary operation based in China. “He’s the one who pushed me to do it,” he said, but Mr. Kim didn’t believe him.

In the evenings, Fowle watched old propaganda films from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, often with Tall Mr. Kim at his side. In one movie, Truman and Eisenhower faced off against Stalin. Fowle loved hearing the snippets of American English. When the films ended and Tall Mr. Kim left, Fowle’s thoughts turned to his wife and family.

The documents Fowle used to enter North Korea. (Photo: Maddie McGarvey)


A few days after Fowle was detained, Simon Cockerell returned to Pyongyang for a business trip. He felt certain that Fowle was being held at the Yanggakdo Hotel. He had no illusions about rescuing Fowle but wanted the American to know that someone was looking out for him. Every night of his ten-day stay, Cockerell opened his windows and blasted Western music. When he went out or returned, he walked along different floors of the hotel, looking for guards. He left Pyongyang with no news for Fowle’s family.

Back in Ohio, Tatyana received a weekly check-in from the State Department. These situations play out according to a pattern, they said. In six months, her husband would be home. There was nothing to do but wait. In the meantime, she could send letters to her husband through the State Department. If the ambassador in Pyongyang managed to arrange a meeting with Fowle, he could pass them along. So far his requests had gone unanswered.  

Tatyana couldn’t sit idly. She wrote to several former presidents: Clinton, both Bushes, and Jimmy Carter. The only reply she received was a form letter from the younger Bush’s office. She’d come of age in the last days of the Soviet Union and understood the social underpinnings of Communist regimes. “It’s about who you know,” she said. “If I talk to enough people, maybe one of them knew my grandfather or my uncle.” She called the Russian Embassies in Washington, D.C., and Pyongyang.

“If something happened to you, maybe,” they told her. “But he’s an American.”

On June 6, the U.S. government acknowledged Fowle’s detention, and the media descended on Miamisburg. A few hours later, Tony Hall, a former Democratic congressman who had represented Dayton, told reporters that he had called North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, hoping to get more information about Fowle’s situation. Hall had traveled to North Korea eight times, working on fighting hunger, and had developed some ties in the North Korean government. He promised Tatyana that he would look into her husband’s case. “Leaving a Bible in a room is not a big deal and shouldn’t be a big deal,” he said.

The media remained outside the Fowles’ house. For two weeks, Tatyana didn’t go to work, because she couldn’t face the reporters. The kids, meanwhile, wrote letters to their father. Tatyana sensed that they needed something to distract them. She bought some hens and a rooster, and soon there were dozens of chicks, small and fragile and soft, and in need of attention.

“Eight Days a Week”

“Back in the USSR”

“I Wanna Hold Your Hand”

On the blank pages of his Korean language workbook, Fowle wrote lists to distract himself from all the questions he couldn’t answer. He had no idea if his wife and kids were OK, no idea if they knew what had become of him. He didn’t know if he still had a job. His list of Beatles songs began optimistically enough, with “I Feel Fine.” The 11th entry, “Help,” was scrawled in anxious block letters. In a list of American presidents, he missed only Chester A. Arthur and Martin Van Buren. He preferred to list songs by category—Motown Sound, Christmas, Sixties Classic Rock—humming the melodies to push dark thoughts away. Paper was in short supply, but he kept a diary, writing just two sentences per day: notes on the progress of a construction project visible from his window, or about an immaculately refurbished old army jeep parked in front of the hotel. After three weeks at the Yanggakdo, Fowle’s statement of guilt was complete.

On May 31, Fowle was told to collect his things. His minders led him downstairs to a familiar Volkswagen Passat, the same car that had brought him there from the airport. Driving through Pyongyang, they passed several construction sites, which reminded Fowle of something he’d read. A group of workers were tearing down houses on the outskirts of Pyongyang, to make way for a highway extension. In one house, they discovered some pages from a Bible. Investigators compiled a list of everyone who had ever lived there and tortured them until they revealed the names of a handful of North Korean pastors operating in secret. The pastors were made to lay down on the pavement. They were still alive when the steamroller pressed them into a freshly laid section of highway.

A few minutes later, the car pulled up in front of a stately guesthouse with a green roof. The driver and Mr. Jo, Fowle’s interpreter, walked ahead of him, like Secret Service agents clearing a path for the president. They entered a large room with walls the color of split-pea soup. Mr. Jo handed Fowle a piece of paper with his statement of guilt and instructed him to read it aloud to an official with an oval face. At the conclusion, Fowle bowed deeply, as he’d been taught. Then Mr. Jo led him to his room.  “Start thinking about what letters you might want to write home,” Mr. Jo told him.

The thought of writing something other than a list thrilled him almost as much as knowing he’d be allowed to communicate with his family. Before going to bed, he sat at the large desk and laid out his writing utensils. He pulled open the desk drawer, and a line of block letters stared back at him, written in black ink on blond wood: NO SCHOOLBOY. Had another detainee stayed in the room? Was it Kenneth Bae?

A new routine took shape. In the late afternoons, Mr. Jo would come and fetch Fowle for his daily walk. The interpreter would walk ahead, signaling when it was OK for Fowle to follow. Outside the men spoke more freely. One night, Fowle asked Mr. Jo about the disastrous famine of the 1990s. Mr. Jo recalled that the worst years had coincided with his time at college, when he studied English at university in Pyongyang. Fowle pressed him to say more, but he wouldn’t.

On June 20, Fowle was driven to a hotel to finally meet with the Swedish ambassador. The American was warned in advance not to try passing any notes to the ambassador. As he walked into the room, Fowle saw a stack of letters and a couple of chocolate bars sitting on the table and broke down. It was the first contact he’d had with the outside world since his ordeal began. For months he’d imagined his life unwinding—a lost job, perhaps a lost home, and a family that would be lost without him. When the ambassador told Fowle that his family was fine, he felt a tremendous sense of relief. He was surprised to learn that he’d made international news. He had feared that he would be swept under the rug—that the North Koreans would somehow be able to cover up his disappearance.

The ambassador passed Fowle an anthology of works by Ernest Hemingway and a stack of letters from back home: his sister-in-law, Brenda, had sent a week’s worth of Sudoku and crossword puzzles clipped from the Dayton Daily News. Each of his children had sent letters. Tatyana had not. A product of the Soviet Union, she hated the idea that someone, American or Korean, would read them. Besides, there was really only one thing she wanted to say: Why didn’t you listen when I told you not to bring that Bible?

During his visit with the ambassador, Fowle was allowed to make a collect call to his family. The call cost about $140, a large expense for a family facing an uncertain future.

Fowle’s lists. (Photo: Maddie McGarvey)


A week after America learned of Fowle’s detention, Sony Pictures released the first trailer for a film called The Interview. “THIS DECEMBER… JAMES FRANCO… AND SETH ROGEN… WILL ATTEMPT TO ASSASSINATE… KIM JONG-UN,” the teaser proclaimed. Two weeks later, North Korea condemned the film, promising a “merciless response” if the U.S. government did not take steps to prevent its release. The regime considered the comedy an act of war. Fowle couldn’t have chosen a worse time to place himself at the mercy of Kim Jong-un.

In October 2013, Nigel Clark, the head of international marketing for Sony Pictures, asked Li Chow, the studio’s general manager in Beijing, for her thoughts on the script. He was worried that the leadership in China, a major market for Hollywood blockbusters, might object to the portrayal of its ally. On November 1, 2013, Chow responded:

“It is difficult to say whether the government will object. In times when there is no political tension in the region, it would not be a problem.… In recent years, China seems to have distanced itself from N. Korea and it is unlikely that Sony will be hurt by making the film.”

By this time, Kenneth Bae had been in custody for a year. Then, in April and May of 2014, Miller and Fowle were detained. On the day that Fowle met with the Swedish ambassador, Kim Myong-chol, a spokesman for the North Korean government, released the first of a number of statements criticizing the film. “There is a special irony in this storyline as it shows the desperation of the U.S. government and American society,” he said. “A film about the assassination of a foreign leader mirrors what the U.S. has done in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine. And let us not forget who killed Kennedy—Americans.” Suddenly, Sony Pictures had a problem on its hands; its CEO, Michael Lynton, asked the Rand Corporation for a threat analysis. After watching an early cut of the film, an analyst warned Lynton that the regime “will likely explore Sony’s computer systems to see if Sony is ready to deal with North Korean criticism,” adding that The Interview would not be “the first time that American films have satirized the North Korean leader.” The analyst also recounted a conversation with Robert King, the State Department’s special envoy for human rights in North Korea: “Their office has apparently decided that this is typical North Korean bullying, likely without follow-up, but you never know with North Korea.” On July 2, Shiro Kambe, a Sony executive in Japan, wrote to the film studio’s top lawyer and its head of public relations. “We understand that several US media recently reported about … North Korea’s decision to put two detained American tourists on trial,” he wrote. “Are these changing the tension of the US media or government on the movie?”

As the summer dragged on, Fowle’s lists of pop and gospel songs gave way to a growing litany of health concerns. He began to suffer from dizzy spells. Sometimes the edges of his vision were suddenly flooded with black spots. He started wondering if his captors were poisoning him. In a napkin, he began stockpiling his nail clippings and collecting hairs from the bathtub drain so that they may one day be tested. One afternoon in July, Mr. Jo took him to a local hospital, a three-story cement building that looked like a commercial warehouse.

Mr. Jo led Fowle past a modest pharmacy and down a long corridor, stopping at various stations along the way. At one station, Fowle had his blood drawn. At the next, his hearing was tested. He gave a urine sample. At another station, a nurse laid him on a gurney and placed eight electrodes on his chest and arms for an EKG test. At the ear, nose, and throat station, Fowle complained of congestion. A man tipped his head back and squirted a brownish red liquid up his nose.

Next they arrived at Dr. Park’s office. The physician, who had examined Fowle at the Yanggakdo Hotel, wore a crisp white lab coat with her name printed on a breast pocket. Her assistant, Jun, wore a nurse’s uniform with an old-fashioned cap. The doctor flashed a familiar smile and greeted Fowle in English. An X-ray technician wearing a heavy lead vest blasted Fowle’s chest with radiation while he and Dr. Park made small talk. The machine looked decades old. Fowle noticed the thickness of the technician’s vest and the fact that no one else in the room was wearing one. Dr. Park didn’t seem concerned. Before he left, she repeated the test she’d administered at the hotel, tapping his body with her hands. No one asked about his dizzy spells or his vision problems.

If Fowle had dreamt of seeing the real North Korea from his family room in Ohio, now he had a front-row seat. He managed to get through only one Hemingway story before the book was taken away “to be checked”; it was never returned. At the guesthouse, the plumbing rarely worked, power outages were constant, and television programs were limited almost exclusively to propaganda. Sometimes the electricity remained off for 12 hours at a stretch.

For the first time in his life, Fowle finished a Sudoku puzzle. Mr. Jo was intrigued by the game. “What is it?” he asked.

“It’s Sudoku,” Fowle said. “Don’t you have these here?”

By the time the first Sudoku appeared in a Japanese newspaper, in 1984, relations were already strained between the two countries.

Mr. Jo was guarded but seemed to regard Fowle with less suspicion as time passed. Sometimes it seemed to Fowle that he was speaking candidly about his own life and his own thoughts.

“Power is a very precious thing in North Korea,” he said. “Even here in Pyongyang, the power is off a lot. But I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

“What do you mean?” Fowle asked.

“I have a solar panel for my house,” he said. “Made in China. When the power goes out, my lights stay on.” In Pyongyang, more and more people were getting them, he said.

The two men became friendly. Mr. Jo arranged for him to see Dr. Park and summoned a barber when Fowle started looking shaggy. Because his toiletries had been confiscated, Fowle couldn’t even trim his nails without borrowing Mr. Jo’s Swiss Army knife.

Once, during their daily walk, Mr. Jo told Fowle something surprising about Jeju Island, a volcanic province of South Korea.

“I’ve heard they grow oranges there,” he said. “Isn’t that wonderful?”

“Sure, I like oranges,” Fowle said.

“Food security is one of the major things we’ve got to worry about here. We’re always on edge,” Mr. Jo said, lowering his voice. “You never see oranges in North Korea.”

Fowle was touched by this small revelation: a grown man captivated by an island full of orange trees. As they made their way back to the guesthouse, Mr. Jo spoke again. “Food is a precious thing here,” he said. “It isn’t always easy.”

For hours each day, Fowle was left alone in his room. He’d been warned not to cross the threshold that divided his bedroom from an outer anteroom, where a window looked out onto the east side of the compound. But boredom emboldened him. He started by peeling back bits of the vinyl covering from the windows in his bedroom, creating slits through which he could see Mr. Jo riding up to the guesthouse on his bicycle. Before long he started creeping into the anteroom. One day he saw a worker plant a flower in the hair of the young woman who brought Fowle his meals. When she arrived with his dinner that night, it was still there. He paid her a compliment he’d learned from his Beginner’s Guide to Korean and pointed to the flower. She blushed.

Fowle no longer received letters from home and had no idea if the letters he wrote were reaching his family. Still, he kept writing. In August, he wrote to his daughter:

I love you and miss you very, very much. I know you are already a big help to mommy, so keep up the good work while I’m gone. Keep studying hard in school and study your bible lessons in school and church. I’m sorry I missed your birthday. I pray that I’ll be home for your next one.

In early August, Mr. Jo accompanied Fowle to the press conference I had seen on TV. Fowle was determined to project a positive attitude. Though he was beginning to lose hope, he wanted his children to see that their father was alright. In front of the cameras, Fowle forgot his talking points; off-camera Mr. Jo reminded him what he needed to say.

For Tatyana, seeing her husband in good spirits on TV was a relief. She also knew that Tony Hall was using his connections to help bring Fowle home. Thanks to the work he’d done to help combat hunger in North Korea, he was able to set up a meeting with a diplomat from the DPRK; on August 13, the two men discussed Fowle’s case at a New York City hotel.

A few weeks later, Mr. Jo began coaching Fowle for his next interview. On September 1, Fowle was driven to a nearby sports complex. He was seated at a large table; this time the reporters waiting to speak to him were Americans.

As I watched in Manhattan, it was clear to me that the month since Fowle’s last television appearance had not been easy on him. He wore the same blue dress shirt and the same oversize glasses. But his demeanor had changed entirely. He spoke too quickly, tripping over his own words. There was a panic in his eyes. He told CNN’s Will Ripley, “I’m getting desperate,” and he looked to me like he meant it.

His boss, the city manager of Moraine, told reporters that if Fowle didn’t return soon, he would lose his job. “We can’t let this go on forever,” he said. At the end of September, Fowle was laid off.

In the weeks after the press conference, the weather grew cold. Mr. Jo brought Fowle a heavy brown jacket, to keep him warm during their late-afternoon walks. He told him he’d brought it from home.

On October 21, Mr. Jo brought Fowle’s suitcases to the room and began packing. Each item was checked against the inventory that had been noted when he was first arrested. In five minutes they were on the road, and in ten they were pulling up to the same hotel where Fowle had met with the Swedish ambassador. Fowle was led down a hallway and into a large conference room filled with North Korean journalists and photographers. Twenty minutes later, a uniformed official entered the room and approached him.

“The Supreme Leader and First Secretary of the Worker’s Party, Kim Jong-un, has recommended that you be released,” the man said.

It took a few seconds to sink in. He’d expected to be hauled off to a gulag; instead he was free. He bowed deeply and began talking about his appreciation for Kim Jong-un. A young, well-dressed Korean-American man stopped him, explaining that he was from the Department of Defense.

“Watch what you say until we’re on the plane,” he said.

They were joined by a middle-aged man who wore a heavy beard. Together they walked quickly to a waiting car, which rushed them to the airport. They boarded a large plane, and Fowle looked around for Miller and Bae, hoping that they, too, were heading home. He sat next to the bearded man, who explained that he was a doctor. Fowle told the man about his health problems in North Korea and removed a napkin from his pocket, which contained the nail trimmings and hair follicles he’d saved. He offered them to the doctor; the doctor shook his head no.

Fowle asked the doctor how the Americans had convinced the North Koreans to let him go. Just then a man approached Fowle with a tablet device to show him a letter from a North Korean official to Tony Hall, which praised his efforts on Fowle’s behalf.

Fowle in Ohio. (Maddie McGarvey)


A few hours later, Tatyana learned the news. For months the weekly updates from the State Department offered nothing new. Now a television news broadcast was reporting that her husband was on his way home. She told the children they were all going to the airport early in the morning for a surprise.

The next day, before the sun rose, Fowle landed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where he’d visited his father countless times as a young boy. A few hours after he landed, I called his house. Tatyana answered the phone and yelled for her husband.

Several months later, after many phone conversations, I flew to Ohio to meet Fowle in person. He greeted me on his porch, looking healthy and relaxed. He spent the day telling me about his time in North Korea, both as a tourist and as a captive. He spoke fondly of the guides, KITC employees, who became his jailers. His headaches had stopped, and his vision was back to normal. His wife eventually forgave him, and the Moraine streets division gave him his old job back.

Sony Pictures hadn’t fared as well. In the months after Fowle’s release, a group called the Guardians of Peace hacked into Sony’s network and published a trove of data, including salary information and internal emails. While the North Korean government did not acknowledge its involvement, the hackers’ threats included references to “the movie of terrorism,” which everyone believed referred to The Interview. The intelligence community is all but certain that North Korea was behind the cyber attack. Sony Pictures eventually released the film in a limited theatrical run but ended up losing millions of dollars on it.

When Tatyana returned home from work that evening, we sat down to a baked-fish dinner. Fowle wondered aloud about Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller, who were freed two weeks after him thanks to a visit from former National Security Agency director James Clapper. He wanted to talk with them about their time in North Korea.

Fowle was warm but beguiling. I pressed him about whether he felt he’d accomplished anything; he shook his head and told me that God must not have wanted him to succeed in North Korea. But after hours of conversation, I realized that Fowle was wrong. Somehow he didn’t see that, during those endless talks with Mr. Jo and Tall and Short Mr. Kim, he had managed to share his most intimate thoughts about his faith. He told them about his fast in the desert, the dream in which God had cleansed away his sins, and how a divine plan had brought him to North Korea to help encourage unlikely believers. It hadn’t happened how he’d imagined: He thought that God wanted the Bible to be his tool, but then Fowle found a captive audience.    

I asked Fowle if his hunger for adventure had been satiated. Soon after he returned home, he made a joke to local reporters that he was thinking about going to Pakistan. His boss didn’t find it very funny. It turns out that Fowle’s new employment contract explicitly states that if he travels somewhere dangerous ever again, it could be grounds for dismissal. For the moment, Fowle seemed chastened. “No Mount Everest, no Saudi Arabia,” he shrugged.

Stephanie Fowle, 9, with her brother Alex, 13. (Photo: Maddie McGarvey)

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