TOKYO — North Korea has sentenced a former Virginia man to 10 years in prison with hard labor for subversion, its official news agency said Friday, in the latest case involving an American being detained by Kim Jong Un’s regime.
Kim Dong-chul, 62, who was born in South Korea but became a U.S. citizen in 1987, was accused of “perpetrating the state subversive plots and espionage against the DPRK,” the Korean Central News Agency reported, using the official abbreviation for North Korea.
“The accused confessed to all crimes he had committed to overthrow the social system of the DPRK while viciously slandering the dignity of its supreme leadership and its political system and gathered and offered information on its party, state and military affairs to the south Korean puppet regime, which are tantamount to state subversive plots and espionages,” said the state-run agency.
Kim’s sentence was, however, more lenient than the 15 years with hard labor handed down to Otto Warmbier, 21, a University of Virginia student convicted of subversion in March after a court found that he had committed a crime “pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy” toward North Korea.
In Kim’s case, KCNA reported that the prosecutor demanded 15 years of hard labor but that the “defense counsel” asked the court “to commute the demanded penalty, arguing that the crimes by the accused are very serious but he is old and may repent of his faults, witnessing for himself the true picture of the prospering DPRK.”
North Korea has no Western-style judicial process, but the KCNA report was written to suggest that a trial had taken place, complete with an independent defense counsel.
North Korea has in recent years developed a habit of detaining U.S. citizens and using them as bargaining chips in negotiations with the United States, its avowed enemy. All detainees were eventually released after high-profile Americans, including former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, traveled to Pyongyang — visits portrayed in the state media as signs of North Korea’s strength.
In addition to the two Americans, three South Koreans and a Korean Canadian pastor are known to be held in North Korea. The Canadian, Lim Hyeon-soo, is serving a life sentence for subversion.
Little is known about the case of Kim, who was arrested on espionage charges in October.
In a highly scripted display, Kim was brought before reporters in Pyongyang in March and said that he had spied for South Korea’s intelligence agencies, sought to obtain details of North Korea’s military programs and tried to spread “religious” ideas — a serious crime in the North. He described his alleged acts as “unpardonable” but appealed for leniency.
Such “confessions” have become part of North Korea’s playbook for detainees. After their release, several detainees have described being told what to say by their North Korean captors.
In a carefully controlled interview with CNN in January, Kim said he is a naturalized U.S. citizen and had lived in Fairfax County, Va., before moving in 2001 to the Chinese city of Yanji, a main gateway for trade with nearby North Korea.
In the interview, overseen by North Korean officials, Kim said he worked in the Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone, just over the border in North Korea, as head of a trade and hotel services company.
Warmbier was accused of trying to steal a propaganda banner during an organized tour over the New Year’s holiday. He was convicted and sentenced after a one-hour trial in North Korea’s Supreme Court.
Some analysts had speculated that North Korea would try to get a U.S. official to travel to Pyongyang to secure the release of Warmbier and Kim in the lead-up to a much-anticipated Workers’ Party congress starting May 6. Such a visit would doubtless be portrayed in North Korea’s state media as a sign of the United States paying homage to Kim Jong Un’s regime.
However, two diplomats and a former government official with knowledge of the discussions, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter, said that no plans are underway for a high-profile official to travel to Pyongyang.
Separately, North Korea accused U.S. soldiers at Panmunjom, the “truce village” inside the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas, of “dangerous provocations” over the past month, including pointing their fingers, “making weird remarks” and mocking the North Korean side “through disgusting expression and behavior.”
A simple concrete ledge marks the border between buildings in Panmunjom, meaning North Korean and South Korean soldiers might stand only a few feet apart.
The U.S. and South Korean militaries are wrapping up two months of joint exercises aimed at preparing for the sudden collapse of, or an invasion by, North Korea. Every year, Pyongyang strongly objects to the exercises.
“The U.S. imperialists and their stooges should not forget even a moment what miserable end provocateurs met while going reckless in the area at the risk of death,” KCNA warned in a separate report.