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Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
A U.S. citizen who says he was arrested and subsequently released from North Korea in 2015 has told his story for the first time, in an exclusive interview with the NK News podcast published in three parts on Tuesday.
The American, called Miles, who has asked for his surname not to be published in order to protect friends and family, says he illegally entered the DPRK in August 2015 and was subsequently detained and questioned for nine weeks before being released.
Miles first entered North Korea as a volunteer in 2014, he says, spending nine months in Rajin and developing what he described as a great “love” for the DPRK and its people.
He would later return to the DPRK as a tourist, in a trip in which he expressed a desire to permanently live in the country to a tour guide with whom he’d become close.
Local authorities appeared to take his request seriously, bringing him to Pyongyang and arranging for him to meet with senior officials to discuss it in more depth.
But he later fell ill, and was as a result unable to meet with officials the following day. Having apparently caused offence, he was then asked to leave the country.
Determined to make amends for what he described as a “misunderstanding,” he began to work on returning to the DPRK, reaching out to multiple travel companies in the hopes of securing a trip and visiting the country to deliver a personal apology.
Identifying the best place to cross from, just a day before his departure into the North
Rejected by those companies’ DPRK-based partner the Korea International Travel Company (KITC) as being too risky to bring into the country, he eventually decided to enter the country illegally.
Locating a suitable spot on the Yalu river which connects China and North Korea to make a crossing from, Miles obtained a small inflatable vessel and prepared it for departure — changing its color and adding Korean language words for “love” and “peace” to its front.
He then crossed the river in the early hours of August 13, 2015.
Having documented his preparation for the trip with photos and video sent to the cloud before departure, he also used a Chinese cellphone still connected to its network to post a picture on Twitter of his arrival in North Korea during the early hours of August 13.
Just reached the other side. Beautiful. Now I just need a lot of mercy and favor. Home sweet Home for now. 🙂 pic.twitter.com/hBQWpHiVyd
— FriendofDPRK (@FriendofDPRK) August 12, 2015
He was swiftly arrested by soldiers from a nearby military base, and eventually taken to the Amnok Hotel in the border city of Sinuiju, where he underwent an “intense” interrogation during which authorities worked to determine why he came into the country.
Held in the hotel for nine weeks, he says he sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un explaining his case and why he had entered the country. He was then released in late October.
Much of his story cannot be independently verified by NK News, and many of the details remain unclear.
Nevertheless, NK News has over the last month sought to verify the details of what is an extraordinary story, which has never before been told publicly.
Much of it is verifiable: open source location analysts have been able to confirm that an image posted by the source online the day of his crossing is likely of the DPRK side of the Sino-North Korean border.
The area the photo was taken from is far from any tourist route and would be impossible to access without having crossed the river to the North Korean side of the border.
Photos provided by the source also reveal that that he spent significant time in North Korea, at the Amnok hotel in Sinuiju, during a period of time that U.S. nationals were banned by DPRK authorities from going there (it would not be until January 2016, after his release, that American visitors would be welcomed in that area).
In addition, screenshots of emails provided by the source show that the U.S. government was in contact with his family and aware of his circumstances during his imprisonment.
Asked for an on-the-record comment, the U.S. State Department declined to formally respond.
“The U.S. Department of State and our embassies and consulates abroad have no greater responsibility than the protection of U.S. citizens overseas,” an official said.
“We generally do not share information with the media about private U.S. citizens absent their written consent.”
However, NK News was able to confirm from informed government and former government sources that the State Department had been in contact with the detainee’s family and that there were several cases involving American detainees in recent years which – like his – never made it to the media.
And while we have worked to make as many details of the story public, Miles has insisted his surname cannot be shared for fear of exposing his family to harm, though he is able to share pictures of his time in the DPRK.
He has also asked that several details of his imprisonment be kept secret, in order to keep contacts and friends in-country from exposure.