US citizen who was detained in North Korea says he wanted to help Christians
Jeffrey Fowle

The American detained by North Korea knew he risked jail by leaving a Bible behind at a club and was not abused during his nearly half year detention in the state often criticized for suppressing religious freedom, he told NBC News on Friday.

Jeffrey Fowle, 56, was released last week by North Korea and then returned to his home near Dayton. He had been one of three Americans held by mercurial state, which typically uses the release of foreign captives to build domestic political support for its leaders.

"It was a risk I was willing to assume at that time," Fowle, a deeply religious Christian, said in the interview posted on the website for MSNBC. Fowle, who held various interviews on Friday, had not previously spoken of his ordeal

The North Korean government takes a hard line against proselytizing, seeing religion as a threat to the Kim family that has ruled it since the end of World War Two and been portrayed as demigods by state propaganda.

A U.N. report this year cited estimates that between 200,000 and 400,000 of North Korea's 24 million people are Christians. The number is impossible to verify because most Christians cannot worship openly.

"I was so motivated by the stories of the underground Christians that I felt compelled to help them," Fowle said.

Fowle spent most of his first month in captivity at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, one of the top hotels designated for foreign guests in North Korea. It has well-worn and sparse rooms, a casino in the basement and is located on an island in central Pyongyang.

"Throughout the whole process I was treated fairly well. I was never physically abused," he said, adding "I usually had too much to eat."

North Korea, which battles chronic food shortages caused by what experts say is poor management of its farms, fed him meals with rice and a variety of soups. It also toned down some spicy Korean dishes at his request.

He was later held in a hospitality center and alone for about 23 hours a day, he said.

North Korea, where health problems of young leader Kim Jong Un have raised question about his grip on power, tried to show that the release came after pleading from Washington.

The Obama administration said there was no quid pro quo with Pyongyang. Fowle said he was told by U.S. officials that North Korea initiated his release.

Fowle was arrested in May for leaving a Bible at a sailor's club in the North Korean city of Chongjin, where he was traveling as a tourist.

The longest held U.S. citizen in North Korea is Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary arrested in November 2012 and sentenced to 15 years' hard labor.

Matthew Miller, an American held in North Korea since April for "hostile acts," in September began a six-year hard labor sentence that he said involved farm work and isolation.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Bill Trott)