It’s a story that begins with North Korea trying to refuse to imprison him, and ends with him going home on the personal airplane of America’s top spy.
It’s clearly more than an average vacation, yet this is exactly what 25-year-old Matthew Miller – the Bakersfield, California citizen who had his release from North Korea secured last Saturday by U.S. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper – has just experienced.
Enduring 210 days held prisoner by Pyongyang, Miller’s tale – now revealed exclusively by NK News – shows more signs of being an extreme vacation causing a major headache for Washington than the “six years of hard labor” North Korean state media called it when he was sentenced in September.
Despite fears in Washington about Miller’s attempt to claim “political asylum” during a tourist trip to North Korea this April, an interview with NK News shows that, far from being arrested upon entry, it took considerable effort for the curious American to get entangled in the DPRK legal system.
During his nearly six months in custody, Matthew Miller said he wanted to find out what North Korea was like beyond the tourist trail, something it seems he was successful in discovering.
“This might sound strange, but I was prepared for the ‘torture’ but instead of that I was killed with kindness, and with that my mind folded and the plan fell apart,” Miller told NK News this week from California.
“I sincerely apologized to North Korea, it was not coerced at all,” Miller said of his court statement to DPRK legal authorities.
“Before going I did not think I would feel guilt for my actions toward North Korea. Over time that changed and I did feel guilt for the crime, so in that sense I consider what I did to be a mistake even though I did achieve (my) goals.”
WHY HE WENT
When curiosity about the international pariah state was not satisfied by regular news and documentaries, the California-based citizen decided to travel to and attempt to defect to the DPRK in April 2014, because the American “just wanted to have a face-to-face with North Koreans to answer my personal questions,” he said.
“I achieved my personal goal of seeing more of North Korea. I wanted to connect with the people – not question the government or the politics. I have no personal politics. This was not a political trip.”
Miller, who left an almost undetectable online footprint up to the point of his detention, was detained by Pyongyang on April 25 – 15 days after he arrived in country.
Five months later, Miller was sentenced to six years of hard labor on espionage charges, a crime he called both true and false.
“I was not there to give secret information or anything like that. I just wanted to speak to an ordinary North Korean person about normal things,” Miller said.
Yet despite what would have once been a hard-earned propaganda prize for Pyongyang, North Korea actually tried hard to get him to leave “on the next plane” after they took him into custody, said Miller. “But I refused. So they detained me.”
Miller might be considered a tourist from hell, but one with the best of intentions.
“I wanted to just every day sit down with them and have conversations about everything. I would ask them one question about their country and they would have a question about mine,” he said.
Speaking to NK News, Miller said he decided to defect to the nuclear-armed state – one with the fourth-largest standing army in the world, and one still officially at war with the United States – by choice, to interact with and learn more from the people living under Kim Jong Un’s leadership.
“I went to North Korea to deliver this notebook and to be detained,” Miller said, referring to the notebook which the state-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) said represented “confessions” to the North Korean government.
But in Miller’s telling, the notebooks were a ruse designed to get him arrested.
Miller’s notebook, shown by state media in photographs of his trial, revealed the extent of the Californian’s efforts to force North Korean authorities to let him stay, despite not conceding to any physical crimes within DPRK territory.
Snapshots of pages torn from Miller’s notebook circulated by state media, after his September 14 political show trial, revealed personal statements which Miller now describes as strategic lies to receive asylum.
The notebook was full of abbreviations such as “RAC,” which Miller says stood for “Renounce American Citizenship,” “NOT NEGOTIATE” indicating Miller’s wishes for North Korea not to discuss his release with the U.S., and “NK PRISON – VISA” indicating his plans to end up imprisoned north of the DMZ .
“NO INVOLVEMENT” referred to Miller’s hope at the time for the United States government to stay out of the case.
“Before going to North Korea I had zero intention to request help from my government. I actually had a message prepared for Sweden, as you may have seen referenced in the notebook images,” said Miller.
“My main fear was that they would not arrest me when I arrived.”
So on the flight to Pyongyang, Miller intentionally damaged his tourist visa.
Despite this, and the eyebrows raised in North Korea by an American demanding asylum, Miller’s fear was nearly confirmed: He said North Korean authorities didn’t want to arrest him at first – they wanted him to leave.
“I was trying to stay in the country,” said Miller. “They wanted me to leave. The very first night they said, ‘We want you to leave on the next flight.’ But I refused. I just did not leave.”
Miller said he was initially moved to the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, where he was said North Korean officials again urged him to leave the country. But again Miller refused.
Actual detention did not start for Miller until the third week of the American’s arrival. On April 25, Miller was moved to what he described as a “guest house,” the same place where he said fellow American Kenneth Bae was being held – along with several other unidentified prisoners. Miller would ultimately stay there for five more months.
In addition to his notebooks and damaged visa, Miller said he possessed “military secrets.”
His notebook highlighted an agenda “to remove the American military from South Korea” and said he was a “hacker.” The statements were accompanied by Miller’s claims of involvement with Wikileaks as well as having “attempted to access files” from U.S. military bases in South Korea.
“I wrote the notebook in China just before going to North Korea,” said Miller.
“The purpose was just having it written is easier than explaining in person, since it was filled with a number of extravagant things.
“Perhaps the notebook was a little too much over the top, they instantly knew it was false and wanted to know my true purpose of visiting.”
The true purpose was to simply learn for himself what North Korea was all about.
“I think it was mistake but it was successful,” he said over several days of interviews.
“I was in control of my situation. I knew the risks and consequences. My trip has probably resulted in no change for anyone, except for me. I do feel guilt for the crime. It was a crime. I wasted a lot of time of the North Koreans’ and the Americans’, of all of the officials who spent time with my case.”
MAN OF MYSTERY
Unlike other foreigners arrested in North Korea, international media struggled to identify details of Miller’s background for weeks and months into his detention. The reason being related to a deliberate strategy to hide his online profile.
Miller had provided New Jersey-based Uri Tours – a company specializing in tours to North Korea for U.S. citizens – with false emergency contact information before purchasing his plane ticket in Hong Kong.
He had used the digital pseudonym “Preston Sommerset” and “PS London” to communicate with online artists from Seoul prior to his detention, was only identified in-depth after a Reuters investigation in October.
A subsequent investigation raised evidence that Miller was the brother of a United States Air Force F-35 test pilot, Major Robert Dean Miller.
Yet while stories of Miller’s obsession with Alice in Wonderland-style manga artwork spread throughout the world, the U.S. government had tried to keep secret information on his older brother to protect Miller during his detention.
But Miller told NK News that North Korean authorities were largely disinterested in his brother’s profession.
“During my time in North Korea they didn’t ask me anything about my brother,” said Miller.
“The first thing I had to do when I was arrested was to confirm my identity. They knew right away about my brother but they didn’t seem to care. They never said anything about that.”
“Seeking asylum seemed like a perfect crime since it put me in that ‘gray zone’ for about a month and I thought it would prevent the U.S. from wanting to help me, although I changed my mind on that later.”
Indeed Miller, along with fellow American detainees Kenneth Bae and Jeffrey Fowle, pleaded for help from the U.S. in securing release during a CNN interview two and a half months ago.
“I suppose the main question is, ‘Then why did you request help from the U.S. government?’” he said. “I am still thinking how to answer that.”
Although North Korean media referred regularly to the conditions of fellow prison-mate Kenneth Bae as “hard labor,” Miller revealed things were anything but.
Despite being under detention, Miller kept possession of his iPhone and iPad after his April 10 arrivalfor “at least a month,” enabling him to listen to music on his two devices and access other stored information, although he could not use them to send or receive messages from elsewhere.
Later, Miller was moved to another, more restricted “guesthouse”, where he was kept in a room locked from the outside under stricter detention. “They would deliver me food. There were other prisoners in the guest house, too. I could hear them unlocking the doors from the outside to deliver them food,” said Miller.
After he was formally tried, convicted, and sentenced on September 14 to six years of “hard labour”, he was moved again to a more conventional prison facility on the outskirts of Pyongyang. “It was kind of a farm place,” Miller said. “They had all control. I would go out to work to move stones, take out weeds.”
Unlike with Bae, a missionary accused of plotting to overthrow the government, or Fowle, whose religious beliefs were what led him to leave a Bible in a restaurant, Miller said that his actions had no religious or political motivations, and were fueled instead by a personal “curiosity and concern.”
“I wanted to meet North Korean people face to face in a way that a normal tour would not be enough,” said Miller.” I spent a good five months having many conversations with various people.”
Having been freed at the beginning of this week after Clapper negotiated his and Bae’s release, Miller offered an account that underscores that he had “no complaints about the North Koreans.”
“I became very friendly with my translator. He told me the first day, ‘I am now immobilized because of you,'” Miller said. “We met everyday and would have conversations. We would play billiards together.”
“He said he was a tour guide for five years and then moved up the ranks. He said he was with Dennis Rodman during Kim Jong Un’s birthday. He said he travelled overseas on business trips. He spoke perfect English,” said Miller.
However, he is not yet ready to share the details of the other conversations he so desperately wanted – and seemingly achieved.
“I might elaborate on that or I might just keep it as a personal experience,” said Miller.
And though some have interpreted Miller’s unexpected decision as the result of mental illness, Miller denies this.
“Everything is good,” he said of his mental wellbeing. “I guess the one thing I would say is that my life is more distant from society than most people. I don’t like to meet people in public.”
Additional reporting: Max Kim, Chad O’Carroll, Rob York