Detainee Update: Ten Years for Kim Dong-chul and Kenneth Bae Speaks



Shortly on the heels of the 15-year sentence for Otto Warmbier, the North Korean Supreme Court has handed down a 10-year sentence for Kim Dong-chul on charges of espionage (Choe Sang-hun at the NYT here). Warmbier’s case got much more coverage than Kim’s. But even though the sentence is nominally lighter, Kim’s case raises greater anxieties. Warmbier is in jail for a college prank: trying to steal a political banner at the hotel where he was staying. The allegations against Kim are more serious. The Supreme Court ruling appears to make the verdict beyond appeal, except to Kim Jong Un himself. Kim is a naturalized American citizen who is a native Korean speaker, thus potentially much more dangerous, and there is at least some second-hand information thatlike Baehe might have had religious motives for his engagement with the country.

Of course, there is also the possibility that these differences don’t matter. Both Warmbier and Kim could be part of a larger play for diplomatic leveragein advance of “negotiations over negotiations” with respect to nuclear and peace regime talks—or in an effort to get the US to kowtow by sending an envoy around the Party Congress. 

According to earlier CNN coverage, Kim had moved to Yanji in 2001, from where he commuted to Rason. He was president of a company involved in “international trade and hotel services.” In the stage-managed CNN interview, in which Kim was constrained to speak in Korean, he admitted to spying on the country’s nuclear program by bribing a North Korean soldier and smuggling information out through China; moreover, this was done not for US but for South Korean intelligence services. The KCNA charge from October stated that he was caught as he was receiving a USB drive from a military informant.

The Kim case initially struck us somewhat mysterious. It is not impossible that an American citizen would head a company in Rason, for example as a tour operator like Bae. But we don’t know exactly what his firm was doing. But since his initial arrest, there has some reporting that he may have been involved in missionary and humanitarian work, which would suggest the real source of the problem with North Korean authorities. This information comes from a Voice of America story from January in which a North Korean defector, Ma Young-ae, told Reuters that she had met Kim in 2007 speaking at churches and seeking donations in California and Virginia for work he was doing in North Korea.

Whether the religious connection is true or not, the State Department has been particularly tight-lipped about Kim’s case and is no doubt sweating the details of how you get a convicted spy released from North Korea. In a well-researched feature in March, Ann Fifield at the WaPo notes the wide differences in detention, ranging from Kenneth Bae’s 6-day-a-week work routine to Jeffrey Fowle's time in a state guesthouse.

This week, Bae sat down with CNN in connection with the release of his book, Not Forgotten . He talked about his 735 days at hard labor, during which he was isolated, lost 60 pounds and was humiliated by prosecutors who said he would be forgotten. In a twist, he also thanked Dennis Rodman, who in one rant suggested that Bae was guilty.  Let’s hope the other parallels to Bae—more substantive charges, Korean-American, religious motives—don’t result in a similar incarceration. 

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