By now, most readers of this blog will have seen that North Korea has detained another American, Jeffrey Edward Fowle, 56 (Chico Harlan for the Washington Post, local information from WHIO in Ohio, where Fowle is from). All that the KCNA had to say—on June 6—was that he entered the country on April 29 and “acted in violation of the DPRK law, contrary to the purpose of tourism during his stay.” The only other information we have at this point is that Fowle might have left a Bible in his hotel room, but even the source of that information is not clear; according to an attorney speaking for the family last week, Fowle was not on a church mission trip.
This brings to three the number of Americans currently detained, including Kenneth Bae and the odd case of Matthew Todd Miller (our theory on his detention was that even North Korean authorities recognized something was amiss when he ripped up his visa and appeared to be seeking asylum).
But the Bae and Fowle cases, as well as the detention and release of John Short, suggest that North Korean authorities are particularly wary of Christian proselytizing. The most dramatic case in this regard is not Bae—sentenced to 15 years—but the case of South Korean Kim Jong Uk (South Korean Kim Jeong-uk) who was sentenced last week to life imprisonment and appeared to escape execution only by a staged public recantation. The links that the North Korean authorities draw between religion and subversion can be seen in the indictment against Kim (from KCNA):
"He committed anti-DPRK religious acts, malignantly hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK overseas and tried to infiltrate into Pyongyang after illegally trespassing on the border for the purpose of setting up underground church and gathering information about the internal affairs of the DPRK while luring its inhabitants into south Korea and spying on the DPRK."
Simply engaging in religious acts apparently “hurts the dignity of the supreme leadership”—revealing in itself of the cult-of-personality the Kim dynasty has fostered--and entails “luring” North Koreans into spying.
In addition to the detainees, there is the ongoing question of North Korean abductions. A new entry into these debates: speculation that a 24-year old American who went missing in China in 2004 named David Sneddon may have been abducted in Yunnan by North Korean agents. The speculation comes in a long feature by Chris Vogel for Outside Online, but he cites a phone call from a former US official to Sneddon’s parents that raised the possibility. Much of the evidence in the piece is circumstantial—Sneddon last being seen in a Korean restaurant, the reported presence of a North Korean agent in the region, Chinese who had seen Sneddon subsequently changing their stories. But late in the article, somewhat harder evidence surfaces in the form of information provided by a Tokyo nonprofit called the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea. A North Korean defector who had previously provided reliable information to the group had obtained Chinese security documents indicating that a 23- or 24-year-old American was arrested in Yunnan province on charges of helping illegal residents—which could have included North Koreans in transit—and that he ended up in the hands of five North Korean secret agents. As with all abduction stories, the difficulty of tracking the stories to earth and the natural human quest for understanding the mysterious makes us suspicious. But given clearly documented cases, it cannot be ruled out. (Incidentally, my colleague Marc Noland reports that the Outside Online story was blocked in China).
Finally, we note that North Korea human rights issues worked their way into the Brussels G7 declaration, including a passing reference to the abduction issue as well. This no doubt was at Japanese insistence in the wake of the Japan-DPRK agreement to reopen the issue.
Other Posts on Detainees:
- Detainees and Envoys (April 2013; on the possible North Korean motive of securing visits by high level envoys)
- Detained Americans: Not-So-Innocents Abroad (September 2013; brief outlines of the American detainees)
- Merrill Newman “Confesses” (November 2013)