Who Are the Americans In North Korea’s Prisons?

May 08, 2017

On Sunday, North Korea’s state-run news agency reported that Kim Hak Song, a U.S. citizen, had been arrested on charges of “hostile acts” toward the government. That makes him the fourth American to be detained in the country, and his sudden arrest comes at a time of heightened tensions between Washington and Pyongyang. The U.S. State Department has acknowledged that it is “aware of reports” that a citizen has been detained.

Americans detained in North Korea, where the justice system is completely opaque and prison conditions are notoriously harsh, have few to no options for recourse. The U.S. liaises with detained citizens, when possible, through Sweden’s diplomatic mission in Pyongyang, as Washington does not have formal relations with the hermetic state. North Korea has been accused in the past of using foreign detainees as bargaining chips to gain diplomatic concessions.

Read More: Meet Moon Jae In, the South Korean Politician Who Wants to Reason with North Korea

North Korea’s regime, led by dictator Kim Jong Un, has alarmed Washington in recent weeks; the country’s accelerating weapons program is viewed as the top security threat to the U.S. and its main allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, which are both host to tens of thousands of American troops and likely targets of any military aggression by the rogue state. U.S. President Donald Trump has taken a hardline approach to North Korea, even suggesting that he might pursue “military options” to curb its weapons development, further provoking the country’s erratic leadership.

Here’s what we know about the four U.S. citizens currently being held in North Korea’s mysterious gulags:

1. Kim Hak Song

Authorities are believed to have arrested Kim Hok Song, who was in North Korea for several weeks working at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), on Saturday as he was about to leave the country. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported his arrest for “hostile acts” toward the state on Sunday, but offered no details about his age, occupation or alleged crime.

The university said in a statement that Kim, also known by the Chinese version of his name Jin Xue Song, was apprehended after concluding a trip to carry out “agricultural development work” at the school’s “experimental farm.” Kim is the second American staffer at the school to be arrested this year after his colleague, Tony Kim, was apprehended in April. It is unclear what, if any, connection the two prisoners may have had with each other.

Read More: Jailed U.S. Reporters: Business As Usual for North Korea

North Korea’s first private university, PUST was founded and remains operated by actors outside the country, mostly Evangelical Christian organizations. While it is a secular school — North Korea keeps a tight grip on information about religion — the university chiefly employs Christian staff. The school has close historical ties to Yanbian University in Jilin, China, near the border with North Korea. Tony Kim reportedly worked as a professor there, while Kim Hak Song is believed to have studied and perhaps worked at the school. Representatives of PUST have stated that the arrests of Tony Kim and Kim Hak Song are “not connected in any way” with the university’s work.

Born in Jilin and educated mostly in California, Kim was an ethnic Korean who is believed to have emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1990s, according to CNN. Citing two men who said they studied with him in the U.S., CNN reports that Kim likely became a citizen in the 2000s, then later moved back to China. His classmates described him as a proud Korean with a passion for issues related to food security and agriculture. “North Korea is persecuting their savior, a person who came to help them. This is wrong,” David Lee, one of the men who said he studied with Kim, told CNN.

2. Tony Kim

Tony Kim, also known by his Korean name Kim Sang Duk, was also a teacher at PUST. Few further details are known about the man, believed to be in his 50s, who was abducted at the airport in Pyongyang while trying to leave the country on April 22. Reports in Korean state media did not specify the allegations against him. Upon his arrest, PUST issued a statement that his detention was “related to an investigation into matters not connected in any way with the work of PUST,” and that “life on campus and the teaching at PUST is continuing as normal.” (An almost identical statement was released Monday in response to his colleague’s arrest.)

The chancellor of the university, Chan-Mo Park, told the New York Times that Kim was involved in some extracurricular activities, such as volunteering at an orphanage. According to the Times, Kim most recently lived in North Korea with his wife, who may still be in the country. Citing the prisoner’s Facebook page, the Times reports that Kim studied accounting at the University of California, Riverside and Aurora University, and spent about a decade working as an accountant in the U.S. before returning to Asia.

3. Otto Warmbier

More than 16 months ago, on Jan. 2, 2016, Otto Warmbier, then a 21-year-old student at the University of Virginia, was arrested shortly before his departure from Pyongyang at the tail-end of a five-day holiday tour. Warmbier was accused of “perpetrating a hostile act” against the state after he allegedly tried to steal propaganda signage from a staff-only area in his hotel. Reports in state media further accused him of acting in collusion with the U.S. government to undermine the North Korean regime. In March 2016, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, and has had no contact with foreign envoys since the end of his trial.

Warmbier was last seen in a confession aired on state media, which is widely believed to have been coercively obtained.

DPRK-PYONGYANG-US-STUDENT-TRIALAmerican student Otto Frederick Warmbier, center, arrives at a court for his trial in Pyongyang on March 16, 2016.  Lu Rui—Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images  

“I never, never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country, I wish that the United States administration never manipulate people like myself in the future to commit crimes against foreign countries,” Warmbier said in his dramatic appeal.

Read More: Otto Warmbier Has Been a Prisoner of North Korea Since the Start of 2016. Has America Forgotten Him?

“I entirely beg you, the people and government of the DPRK, for your forgiveness. Please! I made the worst mistake of my life!” (DPRK, or Democratic People's Republic of Korea, is the country's official name.)

4. Kim Dong Chul

South Korea-born Kim Dong Chul, 62, was arrested in Oct. 2015 on charges of espionage and other undisclosed crimes. Kim is a naturalized U.S. citizen and resident of Fairfax, Va., who ran a trade and hotel services firm in the special administrative zone between China and the DPRK. His secretive detention was only brought to public attention about three months later, when authorities decided to introduce the prisoner to a CNN crew visiting Pyongyang. He was convicted in March 2016 and sentenced to 10 years hard labor, about a week after Warmbier's conviction — both sentences were handed down shortly after the U.S. had levied steeper sanctions against North Korea in response to missile testing.

Kim also delivered a public confession and apology, wherein he said that in 2013 he began spying on behalf of “South Korean conservative elements,” the New York Times reported at the time. The North Korean government reportedly arranged a limited press conference that was covered by South Korea's Yonhap News Agency and China's state-run Xinhua. The few reports about the conference said he admitted to bribing North Korean residents for information about Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.

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