Detainee Update: Kim Hak-song

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Marcus Noland (PIIE)



It appears that North Korea has taken another American hostage, Kim Hak-song, the second faculty member of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) detained in just over two weeks. The motives behind his detention, and indeed even the nature of his alleged offenses are unclear. KCNA has only divulged that "a relevant institution of the DPRK detained American citizen” on suspicion of committing hostile acts against it. It may be time to change the name of our Detainee Update series to Hostage Update; it is hard to reach any other conclusion.

The PUST administration has now released a press statement on Kim Hak-song, claiming that, like with the Tony Kim case, the investigation by the DPRK government is not related to the work of PUST. But needless to say, this latest detention will only further hurt PUST’s ability to recruit faculty and fundraise.

After Kim Sang-duk’s arrest, there was speculation that North Korea might be trying to solicit a high-profile delegation to secure the release of the American detainees, which now number four. Speculation on who the North Koreans were seeking fell on former President Jimmy Carter, who personally negotiated with North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, and was instrumental in getting the US and North Korea to sign the Agreed Framework in 1994. The Financial Times reported that a senior official at the State Department had personally requested to Mr. Carter that he not embark on any visit to North Korea, which would be construed for propaganda purposes by the DPRK government. The following week, Otto Warmbier’s parents broke their silence by speaking publicly on CNN calling for renewed attention to the plight of their son detained in North Korea since March 2016 for allegedly vandalizing a propaganda poster.

It may be time to change the name of our Detainee Update series to Hostage Update. 

The motives for these detentions are multiple, including the possibility that the two professors overstepped the social contract at PUST, which is to keep silent on anything that might be controversial, from politics to religion. But outright hostage-taking and the identification of foreign enemies are also plausible motives. Last week, North Korean authorities released a detailed, over-the-top statement claiming that they had uncovered a plot concocted by the CIA and South Korea’s National Intelligence Services to commit biological terrorism against the supreme leadership of the DPRK. How is that for the pot calling the kettle black? (Our coverage of Kim Jong-nam’s assassination can be found here.)

This latest move could also be seen as doubling down and ratcheting up pressure on Washington to send an envoy to Pyongyang. But to what end? The Trump Administration has sent multiple signals that it is willing to talk under the right circumstances. Presumably these include Pyongyang dropping its precondition that that the two countries sign a peace treaty before North Korea would discuss nuclear disarmament.

In the meantime, one really has to question the advisability of travel to North Korea. The US and other countries put out travel advisories that are routinely ignored. At some point, it would not be all that surprising if the US government moves to tighten travel restrictions legally.

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