The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

While Korean tensions ease, 3 Americans remain ‘prisoners of war’ in the North  

Tony Kim, shown in California at the end of 2016, is a 59-year-old professor who was detained in North Korea in April after a month-long visit to teach at a private university in Pyongyang. He is one of three detained Americans.
Tony Kim, shown in California at the end of 2016, is a 59-year-old professor who was detained in North Korea in April after a month-long visit to teach at a private university in Pyongyang. He is one of three detained Americans. (Courtesy of Kim family)

TOKYO — As the Winter Olympics wrap up in PyeongChang this weekend with another North Korean delegation headed to the Closing Ceremonies, South Korea will be feeling as though it’s made some progress with its errant neighbor. The United States, too, appears to have become slightly more amenable to talks with Kim Jong Un’s regime.

But for the families of three Americans being held in North Korea, there has been no ­Olympics-related breakthrough. They don’t know when they’ll see their father or brother or husband again. 

“We miss him. We want to know how he is doing. We want to see him, and ultimately we want to have him home,” said Sol Kim, the son of Tony Kim, who was detained in North Korea 10 months ago Thursday.

“It’s not just my dad. There are three of them in total,” said Sol Kim, a 27-year-old student in Southern California.

Sol Kim, the son of an American detained in North Korea since April 22, 2017, took to social media, asking for help to bring his 59-year-old father home. (Video: Free USA 3)

Through missile launches and nuclear tests, and through talk about military options for stopping them, these three Americans remain essentially hostages in North Korea, which is treating them as “prisoners of war.” 

None of them have been seen since June of last year, when the State Department’s point man on North Korea, Joseph Yun, went to Pyongyang to retrieve Otto Warmbier. The University of Virginia student suffered brain damage and had fallen into a coma during his 17-month detention. He died six days after arriving home.

Yun was permitted to see the three in a brief meeting at a hotel in Pyongyang. 

State Dept. official met with the 3 Americans still being held in North Korea

But efforts to secure their release have since foundered.

North Korea is now refusing to recognize Sweden as the “protecting power” for the United States, a representative role that Swedish diplomats play in Pyongyang because the United States has no embassy there. Swedish diplomats have been denied consular access to the three, and it is not known where they are being held or in what conditions.

American attempts to deal with North Korean officials directly have also come to nothing, according to a person familiar with the efforts. 

One of the men still being held was detained even before Warmbier.

Kim Dong-chul, a former Virginia resident in his mid-60s, was detained in October 2015. He had been living in the Chinese city of Yanji, near the border with North Korea, since 2001 and working in a special economic zone in the North as head of a hotel services company.

He was put through a sham trial, during which he made a tearful confession that had all the hallmarks of having been written for him. In April 2016, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of espionage and subversion.

The other two men were both affiliated with the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), and both were detained after President Trump was inaugurated.

The only private educational institution in North Korea, PUST is run by a Korean American professor and financed largely by Christian groups. It began offering classes in English to the North Korean elite in 2010.

North Korea detains American at airport

Tony Kim, a 59-year-old accountant, had been teaching at PUST’s sister institution in China, the Yanbian University of Science and Technology in Yanji, for more than 15 years. 

Since PUST began operating in 2010, he had made at least seven trips, usually for a month at a time, to teach international finance and management to students in Pyongyang, his son said in an interview. 

He had also been involved in humanitarian work inside North Korea, including at orphanages.

But as he went to leave Pyongyang on April 22 last year, Kim, who was born in South Korea but is a naturalized American citizen, was detained at Pyongyang’s airport. His wife, who was with him, was not detained and is now back in the United States.

State media reported that Kim had been arrested for “committing criminal acts of hostility aimed to overturn” North Korea and that a “detailed investigation into his crimes” was taking place.

Only two weeks later, another man affiliated with PUST, an agricultural consultant named Kim Hak-song, was detained on suspicion of “hostile acts,” according to North Korea’s state media. He is believed to have been born in China, near the border with North Korea, but to have immigrated to the United States in the 1990s before returning to the Yanji area.

PUST said in a statement at the time that the men’s arrests were not related to their work at the university.

There have been few details about any of the three men because their families have remained silent. And, while Trump and Vice President Pence have in recent speeches highlighted Warmbier’s treatment as evidence of North Korea’s brutality, they have made no mention of the three Americans still detained there.

Trump calls North Korean leadership ‘depraved’ and threatening

But now, especially because of the Olympics-related detente, Tony Kim’s family has decided to publicly call for the release of the three men.

There are no signs, however, that North Korea is in any hurry to free them. The regime has not, according to people who talk to North Korean officials, requested a high-level envoy to come collect them — a task that former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have carried out before.

Unusually, neither of the two men affiliated with PUST has been put on trial or forced to make a highly choreographed confession, as Kim Dong-chul and Warmbier and other Americans before them were.

North Korea usually goes to some lengths to make it look as if it has a judicial process. When Yun went to Pyongyang to retrieve the comatose Warmbier from a hospital, the authorities went through the motions of pardoning him before releasing him.

In recent years, North Korea has made something of a habit of arresting Americans visiting the country as tourists or humanitarian workers, often for Christian-
related activities. North Korea bans all outside religion, viewing Christianity in particular as a threat to the regime’s personality cult, which elevates the leaders to the status of demigods.

 The regime has, however, tolerated the Christians at PUST while imposing strict rules forbidding them from proselytizing or even discussing their faith with students.

Since Warmbier’s death in June, the State Department has banned all Americans from traveling to North Korea as tourists and requires others — such as journalists and aid workers — to apply for permission.

Pence was set to meet with North Korean officials during the Olympics

The leaders of both Koreas feel like they won gold medals this week

North Korea denounces ‘Trump group’ for bringing up Warmbier during Olympics

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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