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The Peninsula

American Citizens Detained in North Korea and their Potential Impact on U.S. Policy

Published May 9, 2018
Author: Robert King
Category: North Korea

By Robert R. King

In a 8:30 AM tweet this morning, President Trump announced, “I am pleased to inform you that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the air and on his way back from North Korea with the 3 wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting.  They seem to be in good health.”  The President will meet the flight with the Secretary of State and the returning Americans at Joint Base Andrews when it lands.

Secretary of State Pompeo was in Pyongyang to complete final preliminary discussions with the North Koreans before the soon-to-be-announced high-level meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Trump.

The three returning Americans are Kim Dong Chul, who has been incarcerated by the DPRK since October 2015; Kim Sang-duk (Tony Kim), who has been held since April 21, 2017; and Kim Hak-song, who has been imprisoned since May 7, 2017.  All three are Korean Americans.

Kim Dong Chul is a naturalized American who (according to the New York Times) lived for a time in Fairfax, Virginia, but who more recently managed a trading and hotel services firm in Rason, a special economic zone to encourage foreign economic activities  on the northeast coast of North Korea near the border with Russia and China.  In April 2016, six months after his arrest in the North, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for espionage against the DPRK and for seeking to spread religious ideas.

Kim Sang-duk (also known as Tony Kim) and Kim Hak-song were both associated with PUST (the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology located in Pyongyang), although both men were also involved in activities in the DPRK that were unrelated to their teaching at PUST.  The University has emphasized that none of the illegal activities for which these men were detained are related to their teaching at PUST.

Privately funded, PUST is an independent college of higher education located in Pyongyang.  It is largely funded with contributions from the Americans, individuals in the Korean ethnic areas of China, and some aid from South Korean citizens when it is legal for them to contribute.  The teaching faculty is largely trained in the United States, South Korea, and Europe, and courses seek to introduce North Korean students to internationally accepted ideas and concepts.  The language of instruction is English, which is an important plus for the North Koreans, and there are good programs in business and health care.  The faculty is heavily drawn from ethnic Koreans who have taught in the U.S., ethnic Korean areas of China, and South Korea, but there are also many non-Korean Americans and citizens from a number of European countries.

The North Koreans are eager to get western business and medical training, and they are interested in the English language training.  DPRK leaders, however, are anxious to make certain that students are not ideologically tainted.  There is a North Korean President of PUST wh0 is responsible for maintaining ideological purity, and students that attend are carefully selected by the DPRK and must meet frequently for self-criticism sessions to reinforce ideological orthodoxy.  Students who are selected by the North to attend PUST are from the country’s elite, and most have gone on to important positions in the DPRK economy and government.

Kim Sang-duk (Tony Kim) is an accountant who taught accounting and financial management at PUST and also at a sister institution in Yenji, China, an ethnic Korean area across the North Korean border in China.  In addition to his teaching, Tony Kim was also involved in humanitarian efforts for orphans in North Korea.  He frequently traveled in and out of North Korea for his teaching.  Just over a year ago, Kim was detained at the Pyongyang airport as he was preparing to leave the country, and he has been held by the North until his release today.  He had not yet been put on trial.

Kim Hak-song is an agricultural specialist and taught agriculture courses at PUST.  He was apparently born in the ethnic Korean area of northeast China, but he later immigrated to the United States, became an American citizen, and later returned to northeast China when he was involved with PUST.  Kim Hak-song was arrested about two weeks after Tony Kim, and he has also not been put on trial.

The three American citizens returning from Pyongyong today are just the latest in a long line of American citizens to be detained over the last decade.  Wikipedia lists 14 Americans detained by the North Koreans since Euna Lee and Lisa Ling were detained March 17, 2009.  That does not necessarily include all Americans detained during that period because privacy laws prohibit U.S. Government officials from releasing information on individuals who may be detained without first getting a signed privacy waiver from each detained individual.  If family members do not reach out to the media or if information is not released by the North Koreans, information about detained Americans does not necessarily become public.  The Wikipedia list of Americans detained in North Korea is a good list, and the references and links to related media reports is helpful.

Beginning with the detention of Euna Lee and Lisa Ling in March 2009, holding American citizens has become a frequent irritant in America’s relationship with North Korea.  In the case of Japanese abductees, the North Koreans from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s kidnapped Japanese citizens in Japan and abducted them against their will to North Korea.  The American citizens held by North Korea have largely been Americans traveling in the North who have been arrested and detained, in most cases as they have routinely attempted to leave the country.  There are a few cases of Americans illegally entering the DPRK, but there are no proven cases of Americans being abducted.

In most cases, also, the North Koreans feel that they have a justification for detaining the Americans.  Their actions are not something that we in the United States or in most other countries would find serious.  For example, leaving behind a copy of the Bible in a bar, is not something that would provoke police action in most places, but in the DPRK an American was held for that.  Another American was detained for over two years for bringing material on a computer drive that might involve spreading Christianity.  North Korean leaders are anxious to stop the spread of what they might consider hostile propaganda including religion.  In most other countries of the world this would simply be considered free speech.

Over the last decade, the North Koreans have both opened their borders to greater contact with Americans and people of other nationalities, but at the same time they have become more meticulous about cracking down on those that carry out activities they consider hostile, but which would hardly be noticed elsewhere.  The arrest of American citizens, which are usually given noteworthy domestic publicity are also intended to warn DPRK citizens of the dangers and risks of dealing with foreigners who may wish to talk or otherwise engage them.  They also give publicity to arrested Americans to give credence to the narrative that hostile foreign powers are constantly seeking to undermine the Kim regime, and hence there is a need for vigilance and tough action by the security forces.

The DPRK has also found it useful to have Americans in custody as a way to put pressure on the United States and get periodic acknowledgement of North Korean sovereignty.  The release of Euna Lee and Laura Ling was arranged only when former U.S. President Bill Clinton (whose wife was then U.S. Secretary of State) agreed to go to Pyongyang to meet with leader Kim Jong-il.  The somber, unsmiling photo of the former American President meeting with leader Kim in 2009 was the price for the release of the two journalists.  A visit by former President Jimmy Carter in August 2010 resulted in the release of Aijalon Gomes.  When I was serving as Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights, I was in Pyongyang in May 2011 to negotiate with the North Korean officials about possible humanitarian assistance for the North, and when I left the country, I was allowed to take with me U.S. Citizen Eddie Jun.  A visit to Pyongyang by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in November 2014 resulted in the release of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller.

A number of other Americans detained for various reasons were permitted to leave without a senior American official appearing in Pyongyang.  In those cases, the individuals had not received the high-level of press attention to assure appropriate publicity for the North or in some cases the individuals were elderly or had other health problems, and the regime has sought to avoid having an American die in their custody.

The case of Otto Warmbier was certainly the most tragic detainee case.  He died shortly after returning home to his family in Ohio in a condition medical officials in Cincinnati called “unresponsive wakefulness.”  When he was returned to the U.S., North Korean officials said he had been in a coma for the previous 14 months, though there was no attempt to explain why American officials or Swedish Embassy officials in Pyongyang (who deal with American citizen issues for the U.S. in North Korea) had not been told about his condition until a few days before he was returned.  His parents have filed a legal case against North Korea for torturing their son, though American medical officials who examined him after his return to the U.S. did not cite medical evidence of brutality.  The reaction to Otto Warmbier’s tragic death was a ban by the United States government on most travel by American citizens to North Korea, largely in order to avoid Americans being detained and harmed.

One of the greatest problems of North Korea’s detaining American citizens is the ability it provides the North to put pressure on Washington.  Protection of American citizens abroad is one of the highest and most important priorities of the United States Government and the Department of State.  Yet when Americans abroad do foolish things or get themselves arrested, the ability of American officials to help is severely limited, particularly when dealing with hostile governments.  In the case of North Korea, these detentions involve naiveté on the part of some American travelers, but also a certain element of manipulation by the DPRK government, which has shown itself willing to take any action to further its hostile aims.

Antagonistic regimes, such as North Korea, are willing to use detained American citizens as leverage to press for actions that are not in America’s best interest.  We welcome the release of these American citizens by Pyongyang.  At the same time, U.S. policy should not be held hostage by Americans who are held hostage by a hostile regime.  We need to recognize that release of detained American citizens is a very important goal, but we need to be cautious about the price we are willing to pay in terms of American policy.  We should not make concessions to a foreign government that finally releases Americans who should not have been held in the first place.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.  

Photo from Paul Gallo’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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