Americans held in North Korean prisons have endured hard labor, some were kept at times in total darkness under conditions so bleak that one prisoner tried to kill himself, and succeeded in doing so after his release.
President Donald Trump said early Thursday when he welcomed three Americans home that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un “was excellent to these three incredible people.”
But some other Americans who were imprisoned in North Korea described harsh experiences, mirroring what more than 100,000 political prisoners may be enduring there each day.
When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s plane carrying the three newly released prisoners made a refueling stop in Anchorage, one of them asked to go outside, saying he hadn’t seen daylight in a long time.
After landing at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim flashed peace signs and waved their arms as they emerged from the aircraft. They were taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, which aid it’s giving them time to decompress. The military hospital said reuniting them with families too soon can “cause additional psychological stress.”
Tony Kim’s family said in a statement that “we thank God for Tony’s safe return. We ask that you continue to pray for the people of North Korea and for the release of all who are still being held.”
Jeffrey Fowle, who was held in North Korea for six months in 2014 after intentionally leaving a Bible in a nightclub, said he thinks Trump’s words were “more diplomacy than anything else, trying to improve the atmosphere” before his meeting with North Korea’s leader. Fowle has consistently said that he was treated well physically by his captors but suffered from not knowing what was happening with his family.
Others had more grueling experiences.
Aijalon Gomes was imprisoned for illegally crossing into North Korea from China in 2010 and sentenced to eight years of hard labor. The American, who was released in 2011, said he tried to commit suicide while in captivity. Last year, Gomes burned to death in a field in San Diego. The medical examiner said Gomes suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and committed suicide, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported in February.
Otto Warmbier was imprisoned for trying to steal a political banner. He was flown back to the United States in a vegetative state and died soon afterward. What caused him to lapse into a coma is unknown.
Journalist Laura Ling, arrested for illegally entering North Korea, said she was first held in a small cell that was enveloped in total darkness when jailers closed slats on the doors. She told CBS News that she was grateful she wasn’t sent to a labor camp, and that she had a room with separate bathroom after she was transferred to the capital, Pyongyang.
Former prisoner Kenneth Bae told CNN after his release in 2014 that he worked from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., farming in fields, carrying rocks and shoveling coal. That appears similar to the forced labor that political prisoners must perform, said Francisco Bencosme, Asia Advocacy manager of Amnesty International USA. The prisoners are also sometimes raped, tortured, starved and even executed, he said.
A United Nations Commission of Inquiry estimated in 2014 that between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners were being detained in four large prison camps.
Amnesty International USA and other human rights groups urged Trump to include human rights issues in his June 12 summit with Kim in Singapore.
“We strongly believe that the United States and others in the international community should not hold back on condemning human rights abuses,” the groups wrote Trump on Tuesday. They asked Trump to urge North Korea to allow international observers to visit all prisons and forced labor camps. The group also wants North Korea to take steps to free detainees held for activities that aren’t criminalized under international law, such as freedom of speech and religion or attempting to leave the country without permission.
AP journalist John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio, contributed to this report.
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