October 22nd, 2014
09:35 AM ET

Emotional Reunion as Jeffrey Fowle, Held by North Korea, Returns to U.S.

After five months of detention in North Korea, Jeffrey Fowle arrived home in Ohio early Wednesday for an emotional reunion with his family.

Stepping off the plane at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and onto the tarmac, he was embraced by family members, including his three children.

"It's a good sign that the North Koreans released this man unconditionally," former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson told CNN's "New Day." "They usually demand a price."

Richardson has helped negotiate the release of prisoners in the past, including from North Korea.

Pyongyang's move is "a signal to the U.S. that says, 'All right, let's start talking,' " and perhaps restart nuclear negotiations, he said.

'Fig leaf' statement

A North Korean government official told CNN that Fowle was released after leader Kim Jong Un issued a "special dispensation."

"Comrade Kim Jong Un, the First Chairman of the National Defence Commission, in deference to agreement between the Supreme Leaders of the DPRK and the US, granted a special dispensation for the American Jeffrey Edward Fowle, who was being indicted, to be released after his case had been dismissed," an emailed statement read.

Former White House spokesman Jay Carney called the statement "a fig leaf."

Kim needed to free Fowle "to try to thaw relations a little bit, and he needs to pin it on the United States," said Carney, who is now a CNN commentator.

The Obama administration, for which Carney was the spokesman, continues to "press very hard" for the release of Americans being held in North Korea, as previous administrations did, he said.

North Korea accused Fowle of leaving a Bible at a club for foreign sailors and interpreted the act as a violation of law.

Although the hermetic state contains some state-controlled churches, the totalitarian regime forbids independent religious activities, viewing them as potential threats to its authority.

So Fowle, 56, languished in detention, one of three Americans imprisoned in the country.

A U.S. government plane picked up Fowle in Pyongyang on Tuesday.

"He has been evaluated by a doctor and appears to be in good health," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

"We're thrilled; we're overjoyed," said Jim Shihady, assistant pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, which the Fowle family attends in Miamisburg, speaking Tuesday toCNN affiliate WHIO.

"My phone's been ringing. The texts have been coming in, and people wanting to make sure we've heard the good news."

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