An American tourist has been detained in North Korea for reportedly leaving a Bible behind in a hotel, Japanese news agency Kyodo reported Friday, but official Pyongyang media has provided only vague details about the arrest.
The tourist, whom North Korea identified as Jeffrey Edward Fowle, entered the country on April 29 and remains under investigation after being taken into custody in mid-May. Pyongyang’s state news agency said authorities arrested Fowle for “violat[ing] the laws of our republic, which did not fit his stated purpose of visiting our republic as a tourist.”
An official for the U.S. State Department in Washington, which has no diplomatic ties to the totalitarian regime, told the New York Times that the department is aware of reports that a U.S. citizen was detained in North Korea.
“There is no greater priority for us than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad,” the official told the New York Times. No further details about Fowle were offered.
If confirmed, Fowle would be the third U.S. citizen in North Korean custody currently.
North Korea has detained a number of U.S. citizens in recent years for seemingly minor offenses at the same time that Kim Jung-un aims to boost tourism to his country, including plans to construct a “world class” ski resort.
Reuters reported that Pyongyang uses detained tourists as a tool to force visits from high-profile American politicians. In 2009, former President Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea to negotiate the release of two U.S. prisoners, journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling.
The move was seen as a publicity stunt on the part of Pyongyang to show North Korea’s "humanitarian and peace-loving policy."
Two other Americans are currently being held in North Korea after they were accused of crimes against the state. Both had entered the country on tourist visas.
One of the detainees is Korean American missionary Kenneth Bae, who has been in custody for 18 months. Although North Korea contains several state-controlled churches, the country is officially an atheist state, and independent worship is seen as a threat to Pyongyang’s authority.
A court sentenced Bae to 15 years' hard labor in 2013. A second man was arrested in April.
In May, the State Department issued a travel advisory for North Korea urging U.S. citizens not to enter North Korea due to concerns about arbitrary arrests and detentions. The department cited previous detainments and heavy fines on tourists, but it didn’t give specific examples.
“In the past 18 months, North Korea detained several U.S. citizens who were part of organized tours,” according to the advisory. “Do not assume that joining a group tour or use of a tour guide will prevent your arrest or detention by North Korean authorities. Efforts by private tour operators to prevent or resolve past detentions of U.S. citizens in the DPRK have not succeeded in gaining their release.”
It wasn’t immediately clear whether Fowle was part of an organized group tour when he was detained.