Since 1996, 13 Americans have been detained by North Korea. This has worsened already strained relations between the two countries and made travel to North Korea precarious. Being part of an organized tour is no protection, either. What’s behind these detentions, and can visitors stay out of trouble in Kim Jong-un’s bailiwick?
Why Are Americans Detained?
Of the 13 Americans arrested in North Korea in the past 20 years, 5 were accused of entering the country illegally. Three were nabbed for various charges relating to the promulgation of religion in North Korea, which is not popular with a dictator who likes the worship for himself. Three more were charged with vague offenses such as “hostile acts” and “committing a crime.” All of them were released, mostly due to private intervention by ex-Presidents Carter and Clinton.
Two more, Kim Dong Chul and Otto Warmbier, are currently being held. Chul is a Korean-American with business interests in North Korea and has been accused of espionage. Warmbier is a student who was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor for stealing a poster, a prank he most certainly now regrets.
What Happens When Americans Are Arrested?
What happens when you’re arrested in North Korea? Nothing good. The North Korean government uses show trials and harsh sentences to put pressure on the U.S. government. Minister Robert Park even claims he was tortured and is currently attempting to sue. The accused, paraded around publicly, usually admits guilt and begs for forgiveness; when it’s denied, an important American public figure comes and negotiates a release. It’s a successful power play and propaganda victory for Kim Jong-un.
What’s It Like For Americans To Be Detained?
The conditions of detention for Americans are a toss-up. They probably won’t go to the abusive camps North Korean offenders are subject to. However, Korean-American Kenneth Bae had to work on a farm 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, until his release. He lost 60 pounds from the ordeal. Euna Lee, a journalist, was interrogated 8 hours a day every day but Sunday. She was often threatened, and the interrogations went on for a month.
The most common scenario for American detainees is to be held in a hotel room and guarded. They’re generally not allowed out of the room, although they may get an occasional walk outside. Meals are rice and broth, and the plumbing and electricity are usually not working. The worst of it is never knowing when or if you’ll be released.
The Current Status of Otto Warmbier
Otto Warmbier, who stole a poster, is currently starting his 15 years at hard labor. Former U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson, who negotiated the release of a detainee in 1996, has asked the North Korean government to do the same for Warmbier. But tensions are high between the U.S. and North Korea, and Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said North Korea is using Americans as “pawns.” North Korea is firing missiles in response. The situation does not look promising for Warmbier.
The State Department has now issued a warning against travel to North Korea, citing “the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention…for actions that in the United States would not be considered crimes”. It’s a warning travelers should take seriously.