Against the background of hysteria surrounding the issue of human rights in North Korea, news that the horrible totalitarian regime has released three convicted US citizens (46-year-old Kenneth Bae, 24-year-old Matthew Todd Miller, and 56-year-old Jeffrey Fowle), gave rise to a whole series of inappropriate comments and questions, such as “will North Korea continue to take hostages to bargain for something else?” Meanwhile, it is quite a cautionary tale from the perspective of not only how Pyongyang behaved, but how the detention of these Americans was presented in the press and what turned out to be true.
In all three cases we were told that “North Korea’s totalitarian regime seized and sentenced to prison terms people who had committed a sheer trifle: Kenneth Bae, during a visit to an orphanage, took several incriminating photographs illustrating in what terrible conditions the children lived; Matthew Miller wanted to receive political asylum in the North, and received six years instead; Jeffrey Fowle accidentally left a pocket Bible in the bathroom of the Nautical Club, and was charged with conducting religious propaganda.”
Matthew Miller was arrested on April 10, 2014 after he ripped up his entry visa upon completing the formalities at the Pyongyang International Airport. The investigation revealed that he had provoked his arrest in order “to get in prison, to study the human rights situation, and then become famous the world over.” On September 14, Miller was sentenced to six years of forced labour.
Mr. Fowle entered North Korea on April 29, 2014, but was arrested a few days later. As it turned out, he left a Bible in a club restaurant in Chongjin, which was identified by his initials and phone number. This was seen by the authorities of the North as illegal propaganda for Christianity, especially given the fact that the incident occurred on the birthday of Kim Jong Il.
Kenneth Bae (Korean name Bae Jung Ho) was arrested for “anti-state activities” on November 3, 2012 in the city of Rason in north-eastern North Korea, where he arrived as a tourist, and the representatives of the US State Department who reported this declined to comment “due to his right to privacy.” However, the truth began to emerge quickly: first rumours surfaced in the South Korean media that the tour groups Bae was organizing were used as a cover for the transfer of information, because a computer hard drive was discovered in the luggage belonging to one of his tour groups. Then it became known that the work of Kenneth Bae was not so much that of a tourist as of a missionary, after which the travel agency’s website and a variety of other materials related to Kenneth Bae were promptly removed from the network by his colleagues.
On April 27, 2012 the North Korean news agency KCNA reported that Kenneth Bae would stand trial on charges of attempting a coup. While staying in the country as a secret missionary, he brought into North Korea not only religious literature, but also anti-North Korean propaganda materials, and also attempted to establish contacts with the “Christian underground ” for the purpose of conspiring to overthrow the regime.
As a result, Kenneth Bae was sentenced to 15 years at the labour camps, where he spent 2 years doing heavy physical labour eight hours a day six days a week, and during that time even met with his mother Myunghee Bae, who arrived in North Korea for five days to meet with her son. He also spoke at least once with Western reporters and said that he had committed a “serious crime”, noting that the North Korean authorities had not harmed him while in custody.
Despite this on September 15, a day after Miller’s verdict, US State Department spokesman Marie Harf said that allegations that the North Korean authorities had put forward against Matthew Miller, Jeffrey Fowle, and Bae Jung Ho, were not grounds for the arrest or incarceration either in the US or any other country. The North holds US citizens for political purposes, although it adamantly denies this.
The long prison terms may seem strange or even outrageous, but they are no less strange and outrageous than, say, the punishment that still exists in South Korea for adultery or the chance to be sentenced there to 7 years for the group performance of North Korean songs under the Law on National Security. Let’s not forget the harsh drug laws in several countries, when a tourist arriving in, say, Singapore from Netherlands, having forgotten to remove a bag of marijuana from his pocket, could receive a big prison term or even the death penalty. The Supreme Court of North Korea imposed the sentences on the basis of the existing criminal code of the country, and from this point of view, its decision is not contrary to generally accepted legal norms.
On September 1, 2014, the three Americans were interviewed by CNN and appealed to the US government to take more active measures to secure their release. This was seen as a signal, and on September 24, the Director of the Association for the Study of Human Rights of the Academy of Social Sciences of the DPRK Hong Chul Hwa said in an interview with ITAR-TASS that the convicted Americans could be released under an amnesty. On October 21, 2014 Jeffrey Fowle was released. Then, on November 11 Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae were released.
And it would have been no big deal, if the US citizens “having returned from North Korean captivity” did not immediately start to tell inconvenient truth in their interview, which was very different from the compassionate stories in the style of “Rafik is completely innocent.” Fowle almost immediately admitted that yes, he did in fact bring religious propaganda and did not forget the Bible by accident. More precisely, he deliberately left it so that someone would pick it up, thereby contributing to the spread of Christianity in North Korea. Yes, he knew it was forbidden, but he decided to spread the faith in this way. Proof of this (the Bible was not pocket-sized and was specifically put in a prominent place) surfaced during the trial of the American, but in this case the confession of the American himself is important.
Matthew Miller also spoke about his plans in an interview with NK News. It turns out that from the beginning he wanted to be arrested and planned to “get to know the North Korean people”. That’s why he tried to give the Northerners false information (records which he made on his laptop, including schemes for the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea and access to the files of the US military base), and made no attempt to defend himself at his trial. As told by Miller, the North Korean authorities insisted that he leave the country, but he refused and was arrested. “My main fear was that I would not be arrested upon arrival,” he said. “They wanted me to leave the country. First they said that they would like me to fly out on the next flight. But I refused and stayed there.”
Yes, it is possible to draw conclusions about his personality (it is no coincidence that some experts have called him weak-kneed or a masochist), but for our purposes it is important that Miller deliberately sought Herostratian glory and an appropriate treatment – and, well, he got what he asked for
Kenneth Bae did not give public statements, because his guilt was proved far too well and exhaustively during his high-profile trial. We have written numerous articles on the attempts by South Korean Protestant sects to create the impression that in North Korea there is a “Christian resistance” that is in dire need of international support. This case does not particularly stand out from the several incidents of this kind, since these missionaries, who are not averse to espionage or sabotage activities, are periodically detained not only in North Korea but also in neighbouring China, from which they are trying to penetrate.
One can note that, despite the sentence of 15 years in the camps, we know that Kenneth Bae received quality health care when his health deteriorated, and moreover, he was allowed to meet with his elderly mother who went to Pyongyang specifically for that purpose, despite the absence of US-DPRK diplomatic relations. You must agree, this is somewhat surprising for those who are accustomed to the depiction of the law enforcement system of the DPRK in horror stories like “Escape from Camp 14”.
The myth that North Korea “takes hostages” was also dismantled. Although the release of Americans is associated with the visit to the DPRK by the American Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, we are not aware of any agreements made between the two countries, which could be perceived as “exchange for the life of US citizens”. There were not even additional supplies of humanitarian aid. Moreover, Washington’s representatives clearly stated that the release of American citizens would not change US policy toward the DPRK, including on human rights issues.
There is also no reason to believe that Washington will apologize to Pyongyang. This was stated by US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, commenting on the statement of the Professor of the Academy of Social Sciences of North Korea Sok Chol Won, who in an interview with the “Associated Press” stated that with the release of their citizens the US should issue Pyongyang an official apology, and that the release of US citizen Jeffrey Fowle was a response to “repeated requests by President Barack Obama”.
In the place of the international community, I would wonder. It turns out that the release of the three Americans is not so much the result of sustained efforts by the US to achieve the release of the innocent as a manifestation of humanity by the DPRK.
Moreover, this humanity does not fit the image of a blatant violator of human rights: all three convicts actually received their sentences for reason. Therefore, their release to a certain extent is a violation of North Korean laws, and constitutes a step taken towards the outside world for political reasons. I’d like the audience to remember this the next time they are told about the “authoritarian regime that does not comply with the requirements of the international community and grabs anybody for any reason”.
Konstantin Asmolov, Cand. Sc. (History), is a senior research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.