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Justin Rohrlich is an Emmy Award winning journalist with a keen interest in North Korean affairs
Arturo Pierre Martinez, a Texas man who illegally entered North Korea in November 2014 by crossing the Yalu River from China, is safely back in the United States, NK News can confirm.
The public has become familiar with Otto Warmbier, the 21-year-old University of Virginia undergraduate recently sentenced by North Korean authorities to 15 years hard labor for allegedly stealing a propaganda banner while on a group tour in the country.
However, Martinez, who is said to be bipolar and reportedly spent time in a psychiatric hospital after a previous attempt to swim to North Korea from the South, all but vanished from public view following a December 2014 press conference in Pyongyang, during which he railed against topics ranging from CIA involvement in the heroin and cocaine trades to the Koch brothers to “infrasonic generators” that the United States government has used to give cancer to “several leftist Latin American presidents … including Evo Morales of Bolivia, Cristina Fernandez Kirchner of Argentina, Lula Silva and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, and most notably, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who stood as the fiercest opponent of America’s imperial power.”
After he finished relaying all pertinent information to the North Korean government, Martinez said he was planning to request political asylum in Venezuela.
The State Department has refused to answer questions about Martinez, citing privacy laws. A call to North Korea’s UN mission in New York City was met with confused silence, inquiries to the South Korean Ministry of Unification in Seoul turned up nothing and former New Mexico Governor and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who has brokered the release of past U.S. citizens held in North Korea, told NK News he had “no idea” where Martinez was.
Some North Korea watchers quietly speculated that Martinez, who was 29 when he surfaced in Pyongyang, might still be there. Perhaps he was toiling away in a labor camp, unable to communicate with the outside world. Or maybe he was being groomed as a modern-day James Joseph Dresnok, an American GI who defected to the North during the Korean War, and spent the ensuing decades acting in regime propaganda films and chain-smoking cigarettes.
The reality is far less dramatic. Reached by phone in his hometown of El Paso, Martinez told NK News he has been back on American soil for “over a year now.” He said he has been purposely keeping a low profile – but declined to elaborate further – and expressed surprise that anyone was interested in his story.
Martinez said he crossed into North Korea from the Chinese border city of Dandong. He was investigated by North Korean authorities, but was “pardoned” for the offense. Martinez was lucky, as American tourist Matthew Todd Miller was sentenced to six years hard labor for illegal entry just two months prior, after ripping up his tourist visa upon arrival. He served seven months before being freed at the behest of US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who flew to Pyongyang to personally negotiate his release.
It nearly always takes a high-level U.S. envoy to free Americans who find themselves in North Korea under less-than-ideal circumstances. In 2009, Bill Clinton traveled to Pyongyang to rescue U.S. journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who had been imprisoned on charges of illegal entry. In 2010, Jimmy Carter went there to secure the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a Christian activist from Boston jailed by North Korean authorities, also for illegal entry, after walking across the border from China.
Martinez entered North Korea during the first week of November 2014, just days after Clapper arrived in Pyongyang to arrange Miller’s release, as well as that of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American pastor from the Seattle area, who had been arrested on charges of planning to overthrow the North Korean government.
“The case is truly sad,” Stephen Haggard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics wrote at the time. “We hope that he is safely repatriated and returned to his family and that Pyongyang does not play the incarcerate-and-bargain-for-envoy game; it would be particularly cruel in this instance.”
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Perhaps aware that he would be of little-to-no geopolitical value, Martinez said the North Koreans treated him extremely well. He stayed not behind bars, but rather, in a Pyongyang hotel room.
Photos from his trip, which were taken between December 16-18, 2014 according to the time-stamps, show Martinez exploring the city like an average tourist. He posed in front of landmarks like the Juche Tower and the Ryugyong Hotel, rode the Pyongyang Metro, and visited the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy research vessel captured by North Korea in 1968.
After about a month, Martinez returned to the U.S without official assistance from the US. government, and at his own expense.
“I had some money saved,” explained Martinez, who said he stopped to visit Havana, Cuba before finally heading home to El Paso, a claim which could not be independently verified by NK News.
Over the course of several exchanges by both phone and text message, Martinez, whose Facebook page includes photographs of cats and manga characters, as well as Adolf Hitler, Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi appeared concerned that elements of his message had been lost in translation.
“Only one website presented it the way it was,” he said, referring to a rudimentary-looking, virtually unknown site called “cool-dprk.” “There are seven pages on the website having the entirety of the speech which lasted me about 20 minutes or so. It’s nearly perfectly accurate with a few misspellings here and there.”
Indeed, most of what Martinez said was, understandably, edited from mainstream coverage. He praised North Korea’s “excellent and thriving film industry,” which Martinez said he had been enjoying since his arrival, as well as the country’s “delicious soda, alongside the best herb-made toothpaste I have ever had the privilege of using, just to name a few examples.”
Like many of the “confessions” read by other Americans in North Korea, portions of his statement sounded like they had been written by a non-native English speaker.
“I would like to note the leadership of this nation has done an outstanding job at preserving the cultural integrity of its society and building strong and united families and communities, where its people are fiercely protected from negative influences such as substance abuse and criminality,” Martinez proclaimed. “Only this country has defended its lands and people from the imperial invasion and hostile influence of the American Empire as victoriously as the DPRK. Under the leadership of the Great Leaders, the DPRK has successfully constructed a truly Socialist State which serves the people and acts as an inspiration for all progressive-minded individuals seeking a brighter future for mankind.”
Whether or not all the words were his own, Martinez apparently still believes in the basis of what he said.
“Here are some points I’d like to make,” he said in a text. “My Social Democratic beliefs and views on the Nationalization of resources; the ideal Society and Culture of the Socialist and Compassionate Capitalism; the Saintly Communist Hero and Great Leader Kim Il Sung and the Kim Dynasty in contrast to Jesus Christ and the various Christian Church branches; North Korea’s Communism as being absolutely righteous and not organized thievery under a populist banner; the media’s false portrayal of what North Korea is really like, and the malnourished Ultraconservative Utopic Reality of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; the DPRK’s Aggressive Deterrence versus America’s Polite Conquest; America’s Leaner and Meaner Military Global Foothold, Nukes for Troops. I appreciate your attention!”
Martinez promised to call later to explain. He never did.
With additional reporting by Adriana Chavez
Main picture: KCTV