Initially, on May 3, KCNA announced that on April 22, the country’s “competent authorities” had arrested US citizen Kim Sang-duk because he had systematically committed “a hostile crime to overthrow the state” on more than one occasion. Although such a formulation may mean different things, it mostly serves as a euphemism for the secret distribution of banned anti-communist or Christian literature.
On May 6, another US citizen, Kim Hak-sun, was detained. The reason for the detention was also related to his “hostile acts”.
Both detainees have connections to the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), which trains representatives of various engineering specialties. This is the only educational institution in North Korea that is funded by foreign investment. It was opened in 2010 by a Christian entrepreneur of Korean-American descent Professor Kim Chin Kyung. Classes are taught in English based on a European system of education by foreign teachers. Here, we note that a number of anti-Pyongyang propagandists have described this place as the main source of the penetration to the North of forbidden technologies, which should long have been put under wraps. Kim Sang-duk was invited there to teach accounting, and also engaged in charitable activities, providing food assistance to children. As for Kim Hak-sun, there is no information on what he was doing there.
With these developments, South Korean media has immediately gone on to remind the world that to date, four US citizens have been detained in the DPRK. In addition to the two Kims, in October 2015, the North sentenced Pastor Kim Dong Chul to ten years of penal labor for espionage, and Otto-Frederick Warmbier, a student, who is serving a 15-year sentence “for trying to take out a propaganda poster.”
As usual, the West interpreted the arrests as Pyongyang’s attempt to “send a signal” or blackmail Washington with people’s lives in order to lift sanctions. In response, on May 11, in an interview with KCNA, an unnamed spokesperson for the DPRK Foreign Ministry announced that North Korea had the right “to punish” ruthlessly citizens of the United States who were detained for crimes against the state, and there is no reason for political bargaining.
Since then, almost a month has passed, and a curious detail is begging for close attention. According to a US Foreign Ministry representative, as the Yonhap News Agency reports, although Washington is in the know about the detentions, this topic of the detainees is quite low-profile. This flies in the face that in other similar situations, the US State Department has openly stated that “attempts to unlawfully incriminate US citizens in foreign lands will not go unpunished, and in order to save their sons and daughters, the US was prepared to go to incredible lengths.” Perhaps the history of each of these detainees does not quite fit into the framework of the “unlawfully incriminated” paradigm.
In earlier articles, we touched on what happened to the US student. This is why we are not talking about an attempt to “take out a propaganda poster”, but about an unsuccessful theft of a big slogan that hung in the service room, which was stolen as a result of some drunken mischief. And during his last night in Pyongyang, Otto-Frederick tried to snatch the poster off and take it along with him to later hang it as a trophy in his own church. And although his detention was described as “a blatant example of total non-recognition of basic human rights and human dignity,” today, even the US media acknowledges that he was “attempting to take down a large propaganda sign”.
As for Kim Dong Chul, as soon as he was released, he held a press conference. The details of his speech, even with a correction for the love of the northerners of this kind of show, cannot be rejected as completely fabricated. In particular, Kim admitted that he had collected on behalf of the South Korean special services or for some “conservative elements” various information, including information of a military nature (“he took photographs of military secrets and scandalous moments”). To accomplish this goal, he bribed the locals and was caught “red-handed” during a meeting with his informant, a former North Korean soldier, to obtain a flash card that contained information about the military facilities of the country.
By the middle of June, nothing had been cleared up: The only available information was that Kim Sang-duk was being detained in a Pyongyang Airport departure lounge after taking a month-long course on international finance and management. Perhaps a book written by one of the professors from PUST describing how they conducted private worship services and “Bible studies” served as indirect evidence.
However, the news on the front pages was narrating the unexpected release of Otto-Frederick Warmbier on June 13, 2017, and the circumstances that preceded it. According to the Washington Post, referring to the student’s family, the DPRK authorities informed them that soon after the announcement of the verdict, Otto-Frederick became ill with botulism and was found in a coma after taking a sleeping pill. The latter is strange, since the usual symptoms of botulinum toxin poisoning do not include a loss of consciousness. On June 6, 2017, information about the patient’s condition was brought to Special Representative for North Korea Policy Ambassador Joseph Yun, whose efforts resulted in the northerners allowing Swedish diplomats to visit the detained US citizens. And when information about the coma was confirmed, Yun informed Tillerson, Tillerson did Trump, after which Yun was sent to Pyongyang along with some doctors and a special aircraft, and during the negotiations, the parties agreed on a release on humanitarian grounds. United States Secretary of State Chief Rex Tillerson confirmed the information and reiterated, “At the direction of the US President, the State Department has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea. Mr. Warmbier is en route to the United States, where he will be reunited with his family.”
Here, we will note that no former US President has managed to organize the release of a student, nor were there, say, any sudden indulgences in sanctions or deliveries of humanitarian aid. Therefore, the myth that North Korea “takes hostages” and seizes foreign citizens under fictitious pretexts to use their lives for political bargaining has once again been dispelled.
But one myth is replaced by another: rumors that the American student fell into a coma due to being subjected to sophisticated torture, or worse, medical experiments, began immediately. The media reported that “Warmbier experienced severe brain damage and extensive withering away of its tissues,” and Human Rights Watch demanded that Pyongyang be held accountable: Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch Asian Division Phil Robertson said that the DPRK inflicted irreparable damage on Mr. Warmbier and his relatives, and therefore, it is necessary to find out how Warmbier was treated during his imprisonment and by whom, and also demand that Pyongyang take measures to prevent the likelihood of similar events occurring in the future.
However, the truth is, no matter what North Korea does, with a certain skill, it can be turned into an illustration of how the DPRK is a country of total horror. The fanning of the story of the “medical experiments on prisoners” reinforces the idea that the DPRK is a country ruled by a cruel and irrational regime from which one can expect virtually anything, and, accordingly, adds fuel to the beliefs of those who think that a “preemptive” military operation against such a regime is not only morally just, but also strategically apt.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. (Hist.), leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of the Far East of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.