Jailed In North Korea: Five Americans Who Got Out

January 23, 2014

Since the Korean War, which ended in 1953, no American has been imprisoned in North Korea as long as 45-year-old Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae.

Bae was arrested in November 2012 and later convicted for supposedly attempting to overthrow the state through a plot called Operation Jericho, described in videotaped sermons.

On Monday, at a rare press conference in Pyongyang, Bae called for American diplomats to help secure his release, a development signaling the regime could be open to talks with Washington.

Washington has offered to send U.S. Ambassador Robert King to Pyongyang, Voice of America has reported, citing an anonymous White House official.

“Obama has been persistent with his hands-off policy towards North Korea,” said Leonid Petrov, a researcher at Australian National University. “Kim is using Bae as a decoy for the dialogue. Now all eyes are on Obama. The ball is in his court.”

Sending an envoy to plea for the release of an American is a familiar scenario for the U.S. government. In recent years, a handful of U.S. citizens have been detained or imprisoned in the garrison state, some under circumstances similar to Bae’s: Korean-American missionaries accused of proselytizing and, as authorities say, undercutting North Korean sovereignty.

Here are five other Americans who’ve landed behind bars — and managed to win freedom.

Merrill Newman (Infraction: serving in an elite Korean War unit, talking about it with North Korean guides)

In October 2013, North Korean authorities boarded an airplane in Pyongyang and removed 85-year-old Merrill Newman without explanation. After a month of silence, journalists learned the reason: The California native had served in an elite unit during the Korean War of 1950 to 1953, advising South Korean guerrillas who launched dangerous attacks on the communist North. As a tourist, he discussed this and other uncomfortable topics with his government-appointed guides.

This episode was incredibly unusual, said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul. The regime had not detained an American tourist on a legal visa for decades. When authorities did make arrests, the targets were often Korean Americans who were spreading Christian and anti-state messages. Newman finally read a “confession,” written in broken English and posted on YouTube, admitting that he was involved in military operations against North Korea in the 1950s. He was soon sent home.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee (Infraction: illegally crossing into North Korea)

While traveling along the North Korean border to film a documentary about human trafficking, this pair of American journalists was apprehended in March 2009 and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. They were quickly convicted of illegally crossing the border, according to North Korean state media. The pair lived in a “guest house” for nearly five months until former president Bill Clinton made a surprise visit, securing their release.

Human rights groups pointed out that this case wasn’t so clear-cut. The two came under criticism for poor judgment in hauling along video recordings and notes that could have ended up in North Korean hands, endangering their sources. Ling and Lee later retorted that, right before their capture, they tried to destroy the tapes and swallow papers, and it remains unclear if North Korea obtained significant information.

Robert Park (Infraction: crossing the border with a Bible)

On Christmas Day in 2009, Korean-American pastor Robert Park crossed the frozen Tumen River that separates China and North Korea. He brought along two items: a Bible and a letter for then-dictator Kim Jong Il, demanding that the country’s six labor camps be closed and their people freed. North Korea is believed to house between 150,000 and 200,000 political prisoners in horrific conditions.

The Supreme Commander, of course, did not oblige. Instead, Park was detained for 43 days. In February 2010, he confessed his crimes, according to state media, and authorities flew him to China. The minister, 28, was already troubled before entering North Korea. Upon returning home, he spent time in and out of a psychiatric hospital in Long Beach, Calif. He has told journalists that his trauma was so painful that he would never be able to hold down a marriage.

Eddie Jun (Infraction: unclear, suspected to be missionary work)

Also a Korean American from California, Jun was arrested in November 2010 while on a mysterious business trip, accused of an unspecified “crime against the state.” Many suspected that Jun, like those before him, had been using business trips as a cover for missionary work. In May 2011, the regime suddenly released him on what it called “humanitarian grounds,” but did not elaborate.

His release coincided with a visit from the State Department’s envoy on North Korean human rights issues, Robert King. The diplomat said he visited North Korea to assess its level of malnutrition, although it led to no deals for food aid.

James Kim (Infraction: charges unclear)

In 1998, North Korea was in the waning years of a famine that would, according to later estimates, leave a million people dead. Korean-American businessman James Chin-kyung Kim traveled to the hermit kingdom to deliver food aid, but was accused of being a CIA spy and jailed for nearly a month without any further details.

Soon after, the entrepreneur was mysteriously given the permission to co-found the country’s first foreign-owned university, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. The university took a decade to set up, opening its doors in October 2010. Today, it trains the children of the Pyongyang elite in business and engineering, a feat for a nation frequently called a “hermit kingdom.”

Kim was suddenly released. In two interviews, he has declined to tell this correspondent further details about his jailing.

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