A man detained in North Korea on charges of illegal proselytization was released Tuesday in what many sources are calling a political move rather than a step forward for religious freedom.
Jeffrey Fowle, a 56-year-old municipal worker and father of three from Ohio, had been in North Korean custody since early May, USA Today reported. The country’s officials claimed he violated his tourist visa by leaving a “Korean-English Bible in the restroom of a North Korean restaurant and nightclub,” presumably in an effort to evangelize foreign sailors.
CNN reported that Fowle publicly apologized for the act last month when he was allowed to speak about his situation to Western media. He described his decision to leave the Bible as “a covert act and a violation of tourists’ rules.”
Although Fowle’s return home has been widely celebrated, foreign policy analysts said North Korea’s actions should not be mistaken as an attempt to improve the country’s relationship to Christianity. Instead, it should be understood as an effort to get into America’s good graces.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson told CNN he believed the release signaled the country’s new openness to negotiations with the U.S. government. The release was a way to express, “All right, let’s start talking,” he said.
The New York Times reported that Fowle’s return to the U.S. was the country’s attempt to improve its government’s public image. “North Korea appeared to be burnishing (Kim Jong-un’s) image at home as a leader capable of doing a favor for the American president,” the article said.
Kim, and the North Korean government more generally, has been criticized in the past for his failure to live up to international religious freedom laws. “While North Korea technically espouses freedom of religion, it is ranked as one of the world’s most oppressive regimes in terms of such freedom,” The Times reported.
That conclusion was supported by the U.S. State Department’s 2013 International Religious Freedom Report, which noted the country’s restrictions on religious expression. Fowle’s detainment for leaving a Bible in a public place is the norm in a country that stands out for its “absolute prohibition of religious organizations and harsh punishments for any unauthorized religious activities,” the report stated.
American officials will continue to work for the release of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller, held on proselytizing and spying charges, respectively, the Times reported.
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