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Incarceration in North Korea: 5 Americans who got out

As Kenneth Bae pleads for release, here’s how five Americans won freedom from the Kim clan’s wardens — including one who founded a university in Pyongyang.

North korea journalists freedEnlarge
Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee arrive at Hangar 25 on August 5, 2009 in Burbank, California after being released by North Korean authorities. They were pardoned by President Kim Jong-Il after a meeting with former US President Bill Clinton. Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, the longest-serving American prisoner in North Korea since 1953, is appealing for his own release. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

SEOUL, South Korea — 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 US 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 US government. In recent years, a handful of US 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 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 2014, he confessed his crimes, according to state media, and authorities flew him to China.

The 28-year-old minister’s trip to North Korea was a "one-man peace mission," according to the BBC. In an interview after his release, Park told the network he “made a very hard decision to maybe never see my family again in this world, because my conscience was really tormented by thinking about how could I live so freely and happily when there are innocent men women and children being routinely raped, tortured, killed for absolutely no reason." When he crossed the border, he said he sang some hymns and "shouted in Korean, 'South Koreans and Americans love you.’” He was immediately arrested. Upon returning home, he spent time in and out of a psychiatric hospital in Long Beach, California. He has told journalists that his trauma was so painful that he would never be able to hold down a marriage.

Editor’s note: GlobalPost originally wrote that Mr. Park was troubled prior to entering North Korea. After his family objected, GlobalPost deleted that characterization and added details about his border crossing. 

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 travelled 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.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/north-korea/140122/life-after-incarceration-north-korea

Lily Chan 10 months ago
How can the reporter write such an evil, false, harmful piece in the Global Post? What he is talking about Robert Park is totally ungrounded and wrong. He was perfectly fine and had no problems before he went to North Korea. He was a man of integrity and love. He was a real Christian. He went to NK because he genuinely loved North Korean people. He had many North Korean friends, and they knew what kind of person he is. Again, he went to NK because of love, because of holy spirit. this is blasphemy.
Fin Lau 10 months ago
Robert Park told reuters he’s entering NK in order to garner attention to the absolutely horrific atrocities the regime has been and still is committing against its own people which in fact amounts to genocide. To the present time he is the only one that suggests realistic and effective life-saving solutions to the NK situation. So his act was planned and it worked. And it was never his intention to get out as he told reuters. It was the regime that refused to keep him and paid for his flight back to the States. Very odd that he's included here. He went in to die. It was an act of sacrifice.
DnlAum More than 1 year ago
You did not explicitly say this list was exclusive but I was not sure why Aijalon Gomes (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/27/aijalon-gomes-boston-north-korea-carter_n_697559.html) was not included in your article. And Dr. James Kim has spoken publicly about his imprisonment in North Korea where he revealed details, for instance, that he was tortured and sentenced to the death penalty. (http://www.hourofpower.org/interviews/detail.php?contentid=6971) (http://dailyrunneronline.com/dr-james-kim-speaks/#sthash.aCRU1fWp.dpbs). I may be misunderstanding what you intended but I thought otherwise, these facts should be clarified.