CNN has published an interview this morning with Kim Dong Chul, a North Korean prisoner who claims to have U.S. citizenship and is pleading for the White House to help free him.
“I’m asking the U.S. or South Korean government to rescue me,” Kim says in the interview, conducted in Pyongyang in the presence of North Korean soldiers. The government of dictator Kim Jong-un permitted the interview with the American outlet as long as it was conducted in Korean, apparently as a power ploy in light of Pyongyang’s recent–and disputed–claim to have detonated a hydrogen bomb.
Kim, CNN notes, was arrested in October for alleged espionage activity on the part of what he described as “South Korean conservative elements.”
“I was tasked with taking photos of military secrets and ‘scandalous’ scenes,” he notes, from the city of Rason in North Korea. While living in China, but close to the North Korean border, Kim says he would travel to Rason to meet with North Korean soldiers and bribe them for sensitive national security information. He did his work under the guise of being “president of a company involved in international trade and hotel services,” he alleges.
Kim exhibited a number of tell-tale signs of forcibly issued statements during the interview. He claimed his South Korean employers “injected [him] with a hatred towards North Korea” and demanded the United States “drop its hostile policies against North Korea,” language almost identical to official North Korean propaganda. For example, an editorial published this week in Rodong Sinmun, the national state newspaper, proclaims, “Neither economic sanctions nor ‘human rights’ racket of the U.S. can ever work on the DPRK making a dynamic advance along the road of independence, Songun and socialism.” CNN notes it “cannot determine whether [Kim’s statements] were made under duress,” though the presence of North Korean soldiers would seem to imply they were.
Kim told CNN he lived in Fairfax, Virginia, before his work in North Korea and that he never spied for the United States government. American officials did not confirm whether Kim was, indeed, a naturalized U.S. citizen, with the State Department telling CNN, “speaking publicly about specific purported cases of detained Americans can complicate our tireless efforts to secure their freedom.”
The New York Times notes that South Korea’s National Intelligence Service has issued a statement clarifying that it had “no relationship whatsoever” with Kim, either, before or after his arrest. “A spokeswoman at the Unification Ministry, the South Korean government agency in charge of relations with the North, said her ministry was checking the report,” the Times adds.
No known American citizens are currently being detained in North Korea. Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller, the last two known U.S. citizens to suffer in North Korean labor camps, both for allegedly overt manifestations of their Christian faith, were freed in 2014.
One Western citizen is known to be detained in a North Korean labor camp: Hyeon Soo Lim, a Canadian Christian pastor. North Korea granted CNN an interview with him, as well, where he described his life in isolation “digging holes in an apple orchard.” Before beginning his sentence of hard labor, Lim was forced to appear on North Korean television and declare, “I admit I’ve violated this government’s authority, system and order.”
The United States has begun its military response to North Korea’s hydrogen bomb claim, flying a B-52 bomber jet over South Korea on Sunday. The plane did its rounds out of Guam, accompanied by South Korean F-15 fighter jets. “This was a demonstration of the ironclad U.S. commitment to our allies in South Korea, in Japan, and to the defense of the American homeland,” PACOM Commander Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. said following the event.
The United States is strongly considering more such flights. “The United States and South Korea are continuously and closely having discussions on additional deployment of strategic assets,” a South Korean military spokesman said Sunday, while another official told South Korea’s Yonhap news service, “The speedier-than-expected deployment could indicate signs of the U.S.’ intention that it will retaliate severely if the North makes further provocations.” Yonhap cites “sources” as saying the United States is considering “additional deployments of the U.S. nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, currently based in Yokosuka, Japan, a nuclear submarine and the F-22 stealth tactical fighter Raptor in South Korea.”
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei also called for restraint as South Korea resumed a campaign of loudspeakers blasting propaganda into North Korea in retaliation for the North’s claimed nuclear test last week.
“To maintain peace and stability of Northeast Asia serves the common interests of all relevant parties,” Hong told reporters when asked about the flight of the U.S. bomber over South Korea on Sunday.
“We hope that relevant parties can exercise restraint, take prudent actions and avoid ratcheting up tensions,” Hong said.
American officials will meet with South Korean and Japanese officials to discuss the proper response to North Korea on Monday, with South Korean officials also consulting Chinese Foreign Ministry officials on their response. The Chinese government has been uncharacteristically critical of North Korea’s latest nuclear effort, summoning North Korea’s ambassador because of the incident and demanding Pyongyang denuclearize its military entirely. China has traditionally been North Korea’s most important ally.