Imprisoned in North Korea: The Cases of 3 Americans

April 26, 2017


When Americans are detained in North Korea, they can expect harsh conditions, with tiny prison cells, little food or water and even less daylight. And their story line is preordained: A forced confession, a show trial, a sentence to years of hard labor with little chance of appeal.

The arrest on Saturday of Tony Kim, also known as Kim Sang-duk, brings to three the number of American citizens currently being held in North Korea. The others are Otto F. Warmbier and Kim Dong-chul. Little, however, is known about Mr. Kim’s case, including why he was detained.

But the experiences of other Americans who have been detained and eventually released by North Korea, often with the help of prominent American politicians, crack open the door on the secretive regime’s network of prison camps and the deprivation found there.

“It was a 5-by-6-foot cell, and there were a couple of slats on the doors,” Laura Ling, an American journalist detained in 2009, revealed in a magazine interview after her release. “There were no bars, so you couldn’t see out, and if they closed those slats, it just went completely dark. There was no way to communicate with the outside world.”

Another captive, Kenneth Bae, an American missionary, said in his memoir “Not Forgotten,” published after his release in 2016, that he was interrogated 15 hours a day “from 8 in the morning until 10 or 11 o’clock at night, every day for four weeks — it was very intense.”

The three Americans now detained in North Korea are being held at a time of heightened tensions. Their cases may be different, but the circumstances in which they now find themselves, as pawns in a complex geopolitical game, are strikingly similar.

These are their stories.

Tony Kim


Tony Kim, also known as Kim Sang-duk, in a photograph from social media.

Mr. Kim had spent a month teaching accounting at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, in North Korea’s capital, and was trying to board a plane to leave the country when he was arrested on Saturday, according to the chancellor of the university, Chan-Mo Park.

“The cause of his arrest is not known but some officials at P.U.S.T. told me his arrest was not related to his work at P.U.S.T.,” Mr. Park told Reuters. “He had been involved with some other activities outside P.U.S.T., such as helping an orphanage.”

Mr. Kim, who is in his 50s, had previously taught at Yanbian University of Science and Technology, an affiliated institute in the Chinese province of Jilin, near the North Korean border. He had most recently been living in North Korea with his wife, who is believed to still be in the country.

Mr. Kim studied accounting at the University of California, Riverside and Aurora University, and worked as an accountant in the United States for more than a decade, according to his Facebook page.

Otto Warmbier


Otto F. Warmbier at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang last year. Credit Jon Chol Jin/Associated Press        

Otto F. Warmbier, 21, a University of Virginia undergraduate from the Cincinnati area, had gone to North Korea on a group tour, and was about to board a flight home when he was detained in January 2016. In a one-hour trial two months later, he was convicted of trying to steal a propaganda poster.

In announcing his arrest, state news media said that Mr. Warmbier had visited North Korea with the intention of “bringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity.”

At a news conference last year, Mr. Warmbier acknowledged stealing the poster and said that he had done so because an acquaintance had offered to give him a used car worth $10,000 in exchange for it. “I made the worst mistake of my life,” Mr. Warmbier said. Whether the confession was genuine or coerced was not clear.

Mr. Warmbier is an honors student at the university and a member of the Theta Chi fraternity.

Kim Dong-chul


Kim Dong-chul in court last year. He was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. Credit Kim Kwang Hyon/Associated Press

Kim Dong-chul, an American businessman, was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in April 2016 for spying and other offenses.

A month before his trial, Mr. Kim appeared at a government-arranged news conference in Pyongyang and apologized for trying to steal military secrets in collusion with South Koreans. The South Korean spy agency has denied any involvement in the matter.

Mr. Kim’s predicament was not known until January 2016, when the North Korean government allowed CNN to interview him in Pyongyang. At that time, Mr. Kim identified himself as a 62-year-old naturalized American citizen who lived in Fairfax, Va. He said he once ran a trading and hotel services company in Rason, a special economic zone that North Korea operates near its borders with China and Russia.

He said he was arrested in October 2015 while meeting with a former North Korean soldier to receive classified data.


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