Detainee Update: Tony Kim



Since this blog was launched, it has been a sad task to keep track of the fate of detained Americans (see all of our linked posts below). Here we go again, but with a very different context. With the Trump administration ramping up the rhetoric, has North Korea just seized a hostage?   

The latest detainee is Sang-duk (Tony) Kim. Kim had been teaching an accounting course at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) and was on his way out of the country when he was stopped at the airport. He is now the third American currently being held by the regime, following long prison sentences meted out last year to Kim Dong-chul and Otto Warmbier. Another westerner, Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, has been held since February 2015 as well, and on a life sentence.

Pyongyang University of Science and Technology is a collaborative effort between the DPRK’s Ministry of Education and the Northeast Asia Foundation for Education and Culture (NAFEC), a South Korean non-profit. Founded by Korean-American Chin-Kyung (James) Kim, who was once a prisoner in North Korea accused of espionage, the university opened to students in 2010. It offers a range of undergraduate and graduate majors, mostly in technical areas that don’t veer too far into the political: agriculture and life sciences, engineering, foreign languages, and the medical sciences with business being the one potentially subversive discipline. The presumption of the effort: that knowledge about the world is ultimately progressive.

Needless to say, PUST’s engagement narrative has been challenged by charges that it is doing little more than educating the regime’s elite to highly uncertain political effect. (And the male elite at that; in 2015 a small cohort of women was enrolled for the first time.) Suki Kim’s kiss-and-tell memoir of her time teaching at the university provides an introduction, although it was as much about Suki Kim as the school. (See my review here). In December 2015, the school suffered an embarrassment when two North Korean defectors claimed that graduates of the university have been assigned to the military for cyber terrorism purposes.

Already allegedly in difficult financial straits, the university is trying to assure would-be faculty and donors that Tony Kim’s detention has nothing to do with his affiliation with or activities at PUST (the university’s press release can be found here.) Ironically, the university’s faculty and funding base draws heavily on Christian-affiliated organizations, and Suki Kim’s memoir shows that administration and faculty are scrupulously cautious.

As of yet, there has been no mention of Tony Kim’s case in North Korea media so we don’t know what the charges are. The natural inclination is to think that any charges are likely to be completely trumped-up, and in this case that may actually prove true. But we have seen before that a good number of the detainees were in fact held for obvious violations of North Korean law, which is not particularly strong on political liberties and civil rights. As wrenching as these cases are for the families, much diplomatic time and energy has been spent on freeing some detainees who bear more than a little responsibility for their incarceration.

In this case, though, it is hard to believe that a clever bit of asymmetric warfare isn’t at work. “You are threatening us? We have some tools, too.” Whatever the story, our hearts go out to Tony Kim’s family and the PUST community.  

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