The recent arrest and expected trial of two American tourists – Matthew Todd Miller and Jeffrey Fowle – has once again raised much fear among the few Americans, and broadly speaking Westerners, who are considering a trip to the Hermit Kingdom. As a matter of fact, I have received a number of letters from people who managed to locate my not exactly widely advertised email address, inquiring about whether they should cancel their trips.
I do feel somewhat uncomfortable about giving advice on such matters, especially because the cost of being wrong could be quite high. Nonetheless, I still advised those who wrote to me that risks were negligible and that they should still go, so long as they still wished to. Of course, I had to add that they should remain cautious and be sure not to break the many regulations the North Korean government imposes, even if such regulations appear silly.
Indeed, with the recent detention of Miller and Fowle, the number of foreigners who have been arrested while in North Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War has hit the dozen mark. Be that as it may, we should could keep in mind that virtually all people who have been arrested by the North Korean government got themselves in trouble after doing something in blatant and open violation of explicitly stated rules and regulations. Such rules and regulations often clearly serve the interests of North Korea’s hereditary elite, but they are by no means difficult to comprehend and follow.
“…virtually all people who have been arrested by the North Korean government got themselves in trouble after doing something in blatant and open violation of explicitly stated rules and regulations.”
Admittedly, the earliest known case of a Westerner being incarcerated in North Korea might be seen as an exception. In the late 1960s, the North Korean authorities arrested and imprisoned two Western communists who came to North Korea in order to assist the North Korean people in their struggle for the triumph of Juche socialism against the U.S. imperialists and their running dogs. Their jobs was to edit the language in the official translations of the North Korean agitprop material. It is not known what led to the arrest of these two faithful individuals, though one might suspect that it had something to do with outbursts of factional struggle that had reached an unusual intensity in the North Korea of the time (admittedly, there are other plausible explanations, too). One of these two true believers either perished in a North Korean prison camp or died immediately following his release. The other was luckier: he eventually made it back to his native Venezuela.
With all other foreigners, the reasons for their arrest were far more straightforward. Essentially, there are two reasons why Westerners have been arrested in North Korea: 1) illegal border crossings, 2) Christian proselytizing (and there is also the case of Merrill Newman, which will warrant a brief explanation below).
Illegal border crossings have been the most common reason for the incarceration of Westerners. North Korean border guards arrested people like Evan Hunziker, Robert Park and Aijalon Gomes after they had crossed the border rivers over to North Korea. In the case of Hunziker, it was just a case of a boyish dare, while Park and Gomes saw their border crossing as a political demonstration. The case of two American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee might be more complicated, since they claim that they were arrested while returning to the Chinese bank of the border river. Regardless of whether such claims are true, it is undeniable that they also crossed the border illegally. And whatever you think about the North Korean government, crossing borders without permission constitutes a criminal act and is likely to lead to detention even in the most democratic countries – ask U.S. border guards if in any doubt.
“Essentially, there are two reasons why Westerners have been arrested in North Korea”
Another reason why Westerner have gotten themselves in trouble while in North Korea relates to attempts to use trips to the country for missionary work. The case of John Short, an Australian Christian activist who, earlier this year, began to give away copies of the Bible to passers-by on a North Korean street, illustrates this angle. Another case of a similar type is that of Kenneth Bae, who obviously did something more serious. His proselytizing activities were no joke: being a Korean-American he was seemingly able to create a rather large catacomb church inside North Korea – or at least, came close to it.
Merrill Newman, detained in late 2013, is a rather unusual case. During the Korean War, he was responsible for training South Korean commanders and guerrillas to be dispatched to North Korea. During his visit to North Korea, he tried to get in contact with his former charges who had never made back to the South. Obviously, the old gentleman did not realize that to his hosts these people were not much different from terrorists (well, admittedly, for them these people are terrorists). The North Korean reaction was harsh: Newman had to stay in the North for rather longer than initially expected. Still, he was released merely one and half month after his detention, having signed the usual confession of guilt.
It seems now that the cases of Fowle and Miller fall into the established categories described above: one was involved with missionary activity while another blatantly disregarded the immigration rules.
According to media reports, Jeffrey Fowle left a Bible in his hotel room when he checked out. While the North Korean government is enthusiastic in showing foreign visitors the allegedly legal Christian congregations that exist in its country, these churches are basically Potemkin showcases. In actual fact, the North Korean rulers see Christianity as perhaps the only real ideological/spiritual rival to Kimism, and their reaction to Fowle therefore was not all that different to their reaction to Bae.
Miller reportedly tore up his North Korean visa immediately upon arrival at North Korean immigration. If the KCNA reports are to be believed, he expressed his wish to apply for North Korean asylum. While little is known about Miller’s political associations, his intentions were not appreciated by the North Koreans who appear to have treated him as just another illegal border crosser. The KCNA said that his behavior and alleged asylum request was a “gross violation of its legal order.”
In a sense, Miller might be quite lucky. In 1937, a young Japanese actor Yoshiko Okada, a devoted communist, decided to illegally cross the Soviet border (at the time Japan controlled the southern part of Sakhalin island, so Russia and Japan shared a land border). She and her husband wanted to partake in the wonders of socialist construction under the wise leadership of Joseph Stalin and his Communist party. Instead, both were immediately arrested as Japanese spies, tortured and made to sign the usual confession. Okada was sent to prison camp where she spent ten years while her husband faced a firing squad. Yoshiko Okada was lucky to survive, but even after her release she was not allowed to leave Russia where she stayed until the arrival of Gorbachev.
Fortunately for Fowle and Miller, Kim Il Sung and his descendants in some important regards are very different from their late Soviet-Georgian mentor Joseph Stalin.
Stalin was nation and race blind, so his secret police never hesitated when they dealt with foreigners. As such, foreign passport holders were treated no differently from Soviet citizens and died in large numbers in Soviet prison camps. But while the Kim family might be no different from Stalin in the way they treat their fellow citizens, they are rather different when it comes to foreigners, with the incarceration of foreigners being very short in nearly all known cases. A mock trial, and/or delivery of a confession of guilt are soon followed by release. Predictably, the North Korean government has wished to maximize the impact of such events, and Pyongyang has usually insisted that a high-level American dignitary come to North Korea to collect the unfortunates. Such a visit could easily be presented to the domestic audience as a sign of American capitulation and hence could be used for domestic propaganda purposes.
“…the only exception to this rule so far has proven to be Kenneth Bae, who has remained in detention for nearly two years”
Apart from the long-forgotten and isolated case of the two language editors who were arrested in the late 1960s (mentioned above), the only exception to this rule so far has proven to be Kenneth Bae, who has remained in detention for nearly two years. However, unlike all others, he was engaged in rather serious anti-government activities, so it seems that the North Korean government is seeking to make an example of him to deter others from attempting similar things.
However, neither Matthew Todd Miller nor Jeffrey Fowle did similarly dangerous things. They are just a small-time amateurish missionary and an eccentric border crosser. Thus, one should expect them to be treated according to established patterns: a show trial accompanied by rather lengthy prison sentence, but immediately followed by a pardon and quick release.
And what of other Western future visitors to North Korea? It seems that they have little reason to worry. As long as they do not start distributing Bibles among hotel chambermaids and bell boys, and choose to come to North Korea by plane or train rather than raft, they will probably remain reasonably safe.
Main picture: Eric Lafforgue
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