Five years ago, the author pointed out to what occurred after the North Korean authorities released three convicted US citizens (46-year-old Kenneth Bae, 24-year-old Matthew Todd Miller and 56-year-old Jeffrey E. Fowle), who were all considered “innocent victims of the regime.” Kenneth Bae, during his visit to an orphanage, took several compromising pictures illustrating what awful conditions the children live in; Matthew Miller wanted to be granted a political asylum in the North and got a six year imprisonment; Jeffrey E. Fowle accidentally left his pocket Bible in the toilet and was charged with religious propaganda.
Later another thing became clear. Fowle, upon his return home, wasted no time stating that he did indeed conduct religious propaganda and intentionally left the Bible so that it could be picked up, thus intending to contribute to Christianity dissemination in North Korea. Matthew Miller wanted to be arrested in the first place and planned it in order to “get to know the North Korean people better.” For this reason, he deliberately tried to give the North Koreans false information (records he had made on his laptop including schemes of the US troops withdrawal from South Korea and access to the US military base files), and, in court, he did not make any attempts to get acquitted. Kenneth Bae did not make any public statements because the legal proceedings, which received a lot of media coverage, ended with his guilt proved only too well and rather exhaustively.
But that is just the introduction. The audience might remember that, among the US citizens detained for espionage and later released against the backdrop of the US-North Korean rapprochement, there was Kim Dong Chul, a missionary and the president of the company engaged in services in the spheres of trade and hotel business in the Rason Special Economic Zone. In October 2015, Kim was arrested during the meeting with his informant where he received a flash stick on which information on the military facilities of the country was stored. He later held a detailed press conference, where he reported that, in 2011, he had been contacted by South Korean intelligence agents, under the direction and at the expense of whom he collected various information, including that of the military: “I was assigned to photograph military secrets and scandalous phenomena.” He was given a 10 year imprisonment, but, about 30 months later, he was released, after which liberal Western media occasionally mentioned his story in the usual context to the effect like “the regime imprisons the innocent and forces them to testify in order to use US citizens as hostages.”
However, in July 2019, Kim Dong Chul gave a detailed interview to the NK News portal (the same one that Alek Sigley had worked with: devoted to the publication of his book Border rider, where, among other things, he admitted that he had spied not only for Seoul, but also for Washington: the US intelligence had assigned him to work in the country and provide detailed information on the North Korean military and nuclear programme.
The US Department of State, the CIA and the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) refused to comment on what Kim said, and, therefore, we find it necessary to elaborate on the “newly discovered circumstances.” Thankfully, it was the first big interview to an English-language edition where Kim provided details about his life, his arrest and his path from a trusted insider to prisoner No. 429.
Kim moved to the US at the age of 19, worked in the cleaning business there and, in 1985, married a Korean from China. After completing his PhD degree at the Dallas Theological Seminary, he began missionary work in the Korean autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China in 2001, but the Chinese authorities were not exactly happy with his presence.
When it turned out that his wife’s uncle was the cousin of Hyon Yong-chol (the Minister of Defense who was presumably executed in 2015), he decided to move his activities to North Korea. In April 2004, Kim and his wife arrived in Pyongyang by the invitation of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee United Front Department Bureau for Foreign Compatriot Affairs, and the proactive businessman was authorized to create an independent enterprise in the Rajin-Sonbong Economic Special Zone (usually called Rason). In 2009, he built a modern hotel Tumengang (currently confiscated by the authorities). He invested $2.6 m in this business, which was his whole fortune.
In North Korea, Kim Dong Chul was considered a reliable and promising partner, receiving praise from the late leader Kim Jong-il in 2007, 2009 and 2011, including an autographed letter of gratitude. He was assigned to promote and attract investment in the Rason SEZ and appointed member of the Committee on assistance to the external economic cooperation. Apart from that, he dealt with the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon) and actively cooperated with the United Front Department. At their request, he even completed a course in the Juche official ideology of North Korea at the Higher School of social sciences at the Kim Il Sung University, receiving the honorable PhD degree in 2009.
According to him, he had not been a spy from the beginning. Originally, its intentions were good: he engaged in rescue efforts, erected buildings and sent auxiliary food and medicine to the local organisations.
However, in 2009, he was contacted by the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) and later by the CIA: “You could do something for your Homeland. The information provided by the defectors gives an incomplete picture of the internal situation in North Korea, and you are there and with a high clearance level.” Thus, according to Kim, he turned into a proactive intelligence service agent.
Kim acknowledges that his decision to become a spy forced him to “undergo many internal conflicts,” however, even before that, out of mere curiosity (?), he began to collect information which could be of interest to foreign intelligence. And then everything that could be useful was transferred to the curators: public moods, movements of the armed forces and their military preparation, the nuclear programme, especially the databases of the North Korean nuclear physicists. For this purpose, Kim also used his contacts in the United Front Department and secret agents in Pyongyang, Chongjin, Hyesan and Rason.
The collected information was transferred to the CIA in various formats including files and photos. Kim occasionally delivered the information personally. “The valuable agent” was specially trained in the methods of collecting information and equipped with a watch with a hidden camera or devices for tuning in to radio frequencies.
In 2014, the first bell rang. The WPK City Committee pulled down the fence around his hotel and began to inspect his activities more closely. Kim flared up, publicly condemned this action and the local authorities and threatened to commit suicide before the nearest statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il if the problem was not solved on an impartial basis. Naturally, after that, the authorities tackled him even harder, which yielded some unexpected results.
On October 1, 2015, Kim arrived at Rason and had a meaningless 15-minute conversation with the director of the Provincial National Committee Bureau for Foreign Compatriot Affairs. However, as he was leaving the residence, Kim was surprised to encounter one of his agents who knocked at the door of his car. The agent had an important assignment. The CIA had found a suspicious vessel in the Rajin port by means of satellite pictures and assigned Kim to take close distance pictures of it and to find out what it is used for. And thus the person entrusted with it openly contacts him and almost publicly gives him a USB and other required materials.
Kim managed to transmit the information to his masters (probably, using a mobile Internet connection), but felt that he was a sitting duck. However, as soon as he left the gate, the Rason counterintelligence head got in his car and “kindly asked” him to go to the nearby hotel where the businessman was arrested.
Kim Dong Chul was interrogated for a month in Rason and six more months in Pyongyang. According to him, he “was tortured in unusual ways” and, at least eight times, was water boarded which leaves no visible marks and is used, apart from other places, in the US (see the stories in the Abu Ghraib prison or Guantanamo). Long cross-examinations were carried out in addition. In his words, Kim, contemplated suicide, but could not carry it out as he was under continuous surveillance.
As a result, he was forced to betray all the agents he knew, including six high-ranking representatives of special services
The court at first wanted to give Kim the capital punishment, but in the end sentenced him to 10 years in prison. As an American of Korean origin, he served his sentence on the usual terms. However, he was kept separately from the North Koreans and the only other prisoner whom he saw was the well-known Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, who had a similar story of philanthropy and spying.
Kim was extradited to the US together with two other Americans.
Well, it is not the first instance of a person doing much as a philanthropist or as a businessman turning out to be a spy not due to the regime’s paranoia, but because this indeed was the case. It is a pity that this kind of approach of the US and South Korean intelligence services to their work in North Korea forms a certain attitude towards any philanthropist or active researcher. The author believes that Alek Sigley became a victim of this approach.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.