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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
“Number 429, you’re destined to live a long life,” the South Korean-born American Kim Dong-chul was told by guards when he woke up on the ground in freezing water two days after being poisoned by briquette gas in a North Korean prison.
“If I had already died in North Korea, I would not have to remember,” Kim, who was released last year, said in an interview with NK News in Seoul this month.
“But because I lived I cannot help but think about the time when I took my first step into the country.”
After moving to the U.S. in the 1980s, Kim achieved the American dream, eventually starting a business in North Korea in which he invested $2.6 million — his entire fortune.
Kim then became a trusted and promising partner of the North Korean state, independently running the Tumengang Hotel in North Korea’s Rason Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and receiving commendations from late leader Kim Jong Il in 2007, 2009, and 2011.
“This person, who had hit the ground running in North Korea, became a traitor overnight and was locked up in a forced labor camp. I hit rock bottom,” Kim said. “Now I have a lot of thoughts when I look back at my life after my dramatic release.”
Kim — who was arrested in North Korea in October 2015 and was freed in May 2018 following over two years of hard labor — remains unable to walk properly due to the aftereffects of water torture and malnutrition.
His detention in the DPRK is the longest of any U.S. citizen in the country since the Korean War, but questions remain about his life in North Korea: why did his life change so quickly? Why did he start a business in North Korea? What was his three-year-long detention in the country like? And what made his detention longer than other U.S. detainees?
In an extended interview with NK News to mark the publication of his book “Border Rider,” Kim discussed his life, his detention, and how he went from trusted insider to prisoner number 429.
Note: NK News was unable to independently verify Kim’s claims, and requests for comment to the mentioned intelligence services had gone unanswered as of Monday evening KST.
FROM PROMISING YOUNG BUSINESSMAN…
Kim’s ties to communist countries stretch back longer than many might expect. Kim — who married a Korean-Chinese woman resident in the U.S. in 1985 — long had an interest in the socialist world, wanting to learn about these countries on the ground and not just from books.
After receiving a Ph.D. degree from the Dallas Theological Seminary, he began missionary work in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Jilin Province in 2001 alongside his wife, who originally did not want to stay in China.
He was soon made aware of some details about his wife’s family background on which he had previously been left in the dark. Her uncle, it turned out, was a cousin of Hyon Yong Chol, a powerful North Korean military official who would later be purged in 2015.
His wife’s cousin, Kim Yong Ji, had hosted the funeral of Kang Pan Sok — the mother of Kim Il Sung — when Kang passed away in Xiaoshahe town, Jilin, and had served as head of the town’s management of Kang’s grave.
“Now I have a lot of thoughts when I look back at my life after my dramatic release”
Working as a missionary through his wife’s personal connections, he grew increasingly disappointed with, and limited by, Chinese officials.
“I could never get close to them, their system meant that they considered me unapproachable,” Kim said. “Since then, I began to see myself as a border rider.”
“Border rider,” to Kim, means he can cross the boundaries of different countries and political systems, but he can never get genuinely close to people under communist governments.
After he “realized these limitations” in China, Kim thought it would be better to take his work elsewhere and help his fellow Koreans in the DPRK.
Thanks to his wife’s family background, Kim had little difficulty entering North Korea. They arrived in Pyongyang in April 2004 on the invitation of the “Overseas Compatriots Business Bureau (해외동포사업처) at the United Front Department” of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).
When he requested permission to establish an independent company under his name, Pyongyang allowed him to run a business in the Rajin-Sonbong (commonly referred to as Rason) SEZ.
Investing his entire fortune of $2,600,000 — saved up while running a cleaning business in the U.S. — Kim independently began work on building the Tumengang Hotel in the SEZ in 2004. The hotel, completed in 2009, was confiscated by the North Korean government after his arrest.
“[The North Koreans] said the trade zone had not been developed well so far and that that was something I could contribute to for the republic,” he explained.
Kim was also tasked with promoting and attracting investment to the Rason SEZ, and given a position at the DPRK Committee for Promotion of External Economic Cooperation (CPEEC).
Kim had little difficulty entering North Korea
“With that title, I began to actively contribute to the economic activities of the North Korean authorities,” he said, telling NK News that he had learned about the UFD’s inner workings — including its overseas work and connections with Koreans overseas.
In particular, he said, he “got to know” the General Association for Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon).
“The United Front Department gave me the title and used me and my status to its advantage and the benefit of its business.”
Although he had contradictory thoughts about working with the UFD, he also “had a lot of curiosity and wanted to learn” about North Korea.
At the request of the UFD, he also completed a course on North Korea’s official Juche ideology at the Graduate School of Social Science at Kim Il Sung University, receiving an honorary doctorate in philosophy in 2009.
…TO SECRET AGENT
Kim now openly admits that throughout his time in the North, he worked with South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) and then the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). They reached out to him, he said.
But he insisted his intentions were “pure” when he opened his business in North Korea, saying he wanted to visit and learn about North Korea with an open mind.
“I started off with naive and basic ideas that I could help the North Korean people, as they were in difficult circumstances.”
Kim even engaged in relief work, constructing buildings and sending supporting food and medical supplies to local organizations.
He began spying in 2009, approached by spy agencies that had become aware of his in-country work. They asked him to work as an “antenna” within North Korea, saying information provided by defectors painted an incomplete picture of the country’s internal situation.
“As you are the U.S. citizen, the U.S. is also your homeland. You could do something for your homeland,” a CIA agent reportedly told him.
“I started off with naive and basic ideas that I could help the North Korean people.”
The South Korean intelligence services also made a similar case: urging him to cooperate with them to help the country in which he was born.
“I experienced much internal conflict,” he said.
He had already begun collecting information that may have been of interest to foreign intelligence. In one self-initiated intelligence-gathering operation two years earlier, Kim purchased a 99.999% concentrated zinc ingot from a nuclear physics professor at the Kim Chaek University of Technology.
The scientist told him the zinc ingot, marked with the crest of the USSR, is an essential substance in producing nuclear weapons and developing missiles.
Kim claimed that his major task as a spy was reporting the general state of North Korean society, including public sentiment, nuclear weapons and missiles, and political power.
“Movements of [North Korean] military forces as well as military training” were also of interest, he said.
Spy agencies were also, of course, interested in nuclear-related issues. Kim collected intelligence about when North Korea had begun to produce nuclear fission, where it stocked nuclear materials and how much it had, as well as how it might produce further materials.
A wide range of topics had to be covered, Kim said, including developing a database of North Korean nuclear scientists.
To that end, Kim leveraged his UFD position to meet with high-level North Korean officials and scientists when he was able to. If he was unable to do that, he mobilized his secret agents in Pyongyang, Chongjin, Hyesan, and Rason.
Collected information was handed over to the CIA in various formats, including files and photos. Sometimes, Kim personally delivered the information to the intelligence agency.
Human Intelligence (HUMINT) is critical to intelligence-gathering in North Korea
Spying and intelligence-gathering — which had begun as a personal interest — became his profession. Intelligence agencies trained him in working like a professional agent. They also gave him special equipment, which they taught him how to use and then discard.
“I filmed footage with a watch [equipped with a camera] and used electromagnetic wave wiretapping equipment. I was able to listen with good detail.”
Kim’s exchanges with secret agents took place in great secrecy. When he arrived at South Korea’s Incheon International Airport on routine visits, he was met by NIS officials in private and escorted out through a secret exit.
As North Korea in those days used analog methods to monitor leaks of information, Kim said what really happens inside the country was not detectable with high-tech equipment. As a result, Kim believes, Human Intelligence (HUMINT) is critical to intelligence-gathering in North Korea.
SETTING THE TRAP
Tensions began to build with the North Korean government in 2014, when a dispute with the authorities saw them step-up their monitor of his activities.
That year he learned that the city party committee’s construction corps had knocked down a wall in his hotel while he had been abroad in China.
Infuriated that he had not been consulted, he publicly condemned the decision and the local authorities.
“I committed agitation and propaganda against the state in a way,” Kim said. “I should not have done it.”
He also threatened to disembowel himself in front of nearby statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il if the problem was not resolved impartially.
Suicide, Kim told NK News, is not allowed in North Korea and is seen as “treacherous behavior.”
“Therefore, I also committed an act of treason. I believe [North Korean officials] began to consider arresting me after that.”
“I committed agitation and propaganda against the state”
Kim entered North Korea on his final visit on October 1, 2015, set to participate in events marking the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the ruling party.
Kim met the director of the Overseas Compatriots Business Bureau of the provincial People’s Committee in Rason city the next day.
“I did not catch wind of anything,” Kim said, adding that the two held a fairly-typical 15-minute conversation discussing events and field trips.
When Kim’s car was about to leave the People’s Committee headquarters, he, to his surprise, encountered his local double agent.
The agent knocked on the door of his car, and Kim, confused, asked his agent why he was there. The agent explained that he did not have time to meet Kim, and then handed Kim his USB and other materials — openly, in public.
“He threw [the USB and materials] at me and nipped away, smiling,” Kim told NK News. “At that moment, [his smile] made me feel anxious. He was with me in broad daylight, we both had been trying to obscure our relationship.”
As Kim drove out of the gate, Jon Yong Dok — a local official who served as Rason City’s head of counter-espionage department at the State Security Ministry — stopped his car and got in the passenger seat.
“There was something very significant in the materials that I received”
Jon, who was well acquainted with Kim, asked him to drive to the nearby Namsan Hotel.
North Korean military officials then took Kim’s belongings and covered his eyes before forcing him into a car. The car then drove for around twenty or thirty minutes.
A day after he was arrested in North Korea, a department director at the third bureau of the Ministry of the DPRK State Security — which interrogated Kim — flew from Pyongyang to Rajin District.
Kim now understands which information might have landed him in trouble.
“There was something very significant in the materials that I received,” he explained.
“The CIA detected a suspicious vessel on the Rajin port through satellite imagery… and asked me to take very close-up photos of it and figured out what it was being used for. I had delivered that information just before [my arrest].”
Kim had asked his secret agent — who he had bumped into right before his arrest — to carry out the job.
After being interrogated in Rason City for a month, Kim was sent to Pyongyang, after which there was a six-month probe. He was forced to confess his undercover activities and give names of the North Koreans who had worked behind the scenes to help him.
In an attempt to cover up his work with the South Korean and U.S. agencies, he named six North Koreans — officials at the State Security Ministry and People’s Security Ministry as well as representatives of establishment units and factories — as having been involved.
“I could not lie about them,” Kim said. “I could have protected them if I had continued to bear the suffering (during interrogation). But it was impossible.”
He now believes those officials were executed as a result of his confession.
Kim also sought to thoroughly conceal his relations with very well-connected individuals, suggesting he had made contact with high-ranking government officials.
“I was tortured in unusual ways”
Interrogations — which included beating — were brutal. Kim to this day cannot move comfortably, and half of his body has been paralyzed. He was also forcibly prevented from taking his own life through constant surveillance.
“I was subjected to water torture eight times. And I tried a few times to take my own life,” he told NK News. “But I could not die.”
Attempting to downplay the extent of his involvement in espionage, Kim said he fabricated stories. This was not easy: North Korean officials repeatedly cross-examined him to check the consistency in his statements.
“At some point, I could not remember my answers. And sometimes, my statements were different,” Kim said. “And then the water torture and beatings began, and I was tortured in unusual ways.”
“I completely gave up.”
He then appeared at a news conference in March 2016 — broadcast by North Korea’s state-run broadcaster Korean Central Television (KCTV) — in an elaborate confession in which he admitted to working for the NIS, though he refrained from naming the CIA.
He was sentenced to death at a preliminary hearing, though his penalty was later reduced to ten years of hard labor.
North Korean state media reported that Kim — accused of violating Articles 60 (Conspiracy to Subvert the State) and 64 (Espionage) of the DPRK Criminal Code — had admitted to “all crimes he had committed to overthrow the social system of the DPRK.”
Kim said his sentences were likely commuted due to his services to the DPRK government.
“I had taken care of Kim Jong Il’s pains for his medical treatment for ten years. I have never met Kim Jong Il, but I received commendations with his autograph. So I think they might have considered this.”
“I gave up, believing that I would be imprisoned for ten years.”
“I could not live there and stay sane. You have to be half-crazy to survive,” Kim told NK News as he remembered his daily life at a labor camp.
The rainy days and bad weather were particularly bad.
“I had such a small room which was dank because of the humidity. I really felt anxiety. Bugs were coming and going around me, the only friends I had were bugs,” Kim said, explaining he lived a life of total isolation.
Kim was completely segregated from other prisoners. The only other detainee he saw was the South Korean-born Canadian citizen Lim Hyeon-soo, who was detained in North Korea for two and a half years.
He also almost died from carbon monoxide poisoning in 2017 — common in North Korea where coal briquettes are often used as fuel — waking up covered with a blanket outside two days later.
The North Korean guards, he said, left him outside hoping he might recover if he breathed in the fresh air. There was no other way to save him in such an isolated place.
“Number 429, you’re destined to live a long life,” the North Koreans told him as he woke up. “We had already given up.”
Kim woke up at 0600 and went to bed at 2200 every day. He was conscripted to do forced labor from 0800 to 1800, but in reality, his work continued until he had completed his allocated amount of daily labor, which involved dry-field farming cultivating corn, beans, and sweet potatoes.
“I repeated the same task from beginning to end,” he said.
During the winter, Kim had to dig a two-meter hole in the frozen ground and fill it with earth. He asked his guards why he had to carry out such a futile task.
“They told me that Number 429 has no authority to raise a question. Number 429 was punished for committing treason against the Republic, so my duty was to concentrate on [my punishment].”
Kim received three meals a day in prison: 80-100 grams of brown rice, salty bean paste soup, and three or four pieces of pickled radish. He became malnourished and his health deteriorated: his fingers remain stiffened by the poor diet.
DAY OF FREEDOM
But while Kim suffered in a prison jail, his rescue was underway.
“It was a dramatic rescue,” Kim told NK News. “I did not think I would ever be released.”
The day of his release began as any other, until he was visited by one of his guards and told to change his clothes. He then met with the DPRK State Security Ministry official who had interrogated him three years prior.
“I was really glad to see him, and asked about the situation,” Kim said. “He told me that he did not know the exact orders from his superior authority, but that he had been asked to send me to Pyongyang under escort.”
His eyes were then covered with a cloth, and, after a drive that lasted several hours, arrived in Pyongyang.
“I was left in a room and could not hear anything. I felt anxious as there was no action after I was brought there. I blacked out because of stress.”
After a doctor administered first aid to Kim, he woke up and regained consciousness at around 1900. Soldiers at the security ministry then took him to the venue where he had been interviewed by CNN in January 2016.
“Something that I could not have ever expected happened in an instant.”
Kim then met two fellow Americans for the first time in years. They were Kim Sang-duk (also known as Tony Kim) and Kim Hak-song, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) lecturers who had been detained for alleged “hostile acts” since 2017.
Kim then met a Director of the DPRK Central Public Prosecutors Office and a judge of the DPRK Supreme Court.
“Number 429, write a statement of self-examination,” the director ordered.
“I was really embarrassed when he asked me to do it out of the blue. I had written a lot of statements of self-examination three years before,” Kim said.
“I wrote that I had a lot of time for reflection about the Republic in the course of my three-year stay after I was sentenced with hard labor due to my hostile acts against the DPRK and espionage.”
The judge of the DPRK Supreme Court then read the statement in front of the three detainees and reached a verdict: “We will extradite Number 429 to the U.S.”
“And that’s how it ended,” Kim said. “I realized that I was being released. I felt relieved… Something that I could not have ever expected happened in an instant.”
Several hours later, Kim stood in front of media next to U.S. President Donald Trump at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and shared brief remarks.
Although 14 months have passed since his release, mental and physical scars from his three-year detention have not died. He now regrets his spying.
“If I had given up my espionage activities early on, I would not have any reason to be here now,” Kim told NK News, expressing regret that he cannot return to North Korea.
“The life of the border rider does not stay in one place. Therefore, the life of the border rider is always lonely,” he writes in his book.
His previous trans-national life made him enemies, he admitted.
“The fact that my life could have been wasted on a one-off basis in a country makes me truly melancholy. Therefore, no one can be a border rider unless live life tenaciously, risking their life.”
Asked by NK News whether he would restart his business in North Korea if he could, Kim prepared a letter rather than give a direct answer. Here is the part of his letter:
“Whenever I am exhausted and tired, I feel empowered when I think of my life in North Korea,” Kim said. “I get to wake up and start my day again feeling how valuable freedom and democracy are.”
“While thinking deeply about North Korea and the Republic of Korea, I’m contemplating what I live for and how to valuably use the life I’m living on borrowed time.”
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: All photos, unless otherwise stated, are property of Kim Dong-chul. Their redistribution without his consent is strictly prohibited.