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Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
Tuesday marked five years since two South Koreans were sentenced to life in North Korea for “espionage,” with no updates about their detention or health recently made available by either government.
The cases of Choe Chun-gil and Kim Kuk-gi, who received “a penalty of indefinite compulsory labor” on June 23, 2015, have not been mentioned by North Korean state media since November 2017. An NK News request for comment to a DPRK embassy went unanswered.
While the pair are thought to remain in custody alongside four other ROK nationals arrested in the years before and after, South Korean authorities on Tuesday had no up-to-date information on any of their whereabouts.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) is continuing to request North Korea for a speedy release and repatriation of our detained citizens,” an official from a branch relevant to the matter told NK News.
MOFA, the official added, was making requests “in consultation with relevant government departments, relevant international organizations, as well as countries that sustain diplomatic channels with North Korea.”
The three inter-Korean summits of 2018 – which included a high-profile Pyongyang visit by President Moon Jae-in and several of his top ministers – also failed to bring the detainees home.
In a statement to NK News, an official with the Ministry of Unification (MOU) said Tuesday that the issue of the detainees had been raised with the North Koreans during that event and on several other occasions.
“The ROKG… raised the issue of the detainees to the North at the 2018 inter-Korean summit and high-level talks,” they said.
“It is difficult to grasp the current status of the detainees as the North [continues] not to disclose information including their whereabouts,” the official continued.
“The Government will continue to make utmost efforts to solve the detainees issue.”
The day Pyongyang approved the release of three U.S. citizens in May 2018, a Blue House spokesperson said that Moon had discussed the detainees with Kim Jong Un during the first inter-Korean summit the previous month.
The spokesperson did not, however, share details about the North Korean leader’s response, and the topic was absent from all official discourse surrounding the inter-Korean summits of May and September 2018.
One human rights activist from North Korea said the summits were therefore a missed opportunity.
“What’s regrettable is that when the South Korean president visited Pyongyang, he was accompanied by so many officials such as the ministers of MOFA, MOU, and head of NIS,” Ji Seong-ho, a recently elected defector politician, told NK News.
“I was utterly astonished to see how they did not even mention the detainee issue and came back without knowing their current status.”
Another heavyweight in the North Korean human rights field also expressed concern at the absence of new information about the detainees’ whereabouts.
“I don’t know what they’ve been doing for the past years,” said Ambassador Lee Jung-hoon, the ROK’s former human rights ambassador. “They have departments in both (MOFA and the MOU) to deal with North Korean human rights.”
But Ambassador Robert King, Washington’s point-man on DPRK human rights issues under President Barack Obama, said Seoul may be better off taking a softly-softly approach.
“Neither (Korea) wants to appear to be ‘giving in’ to the other,” he argued. “The ROK does not want to ask for release, because the North generally ignores such requests, and it will make the ROK look like it has no power vis-a-vis the North.”
“The North is sensitive about agreeing to do what the ROK asks because it makes the North look weak in standing up to the ROK.”
As a result, he said, “non-public communication about detainees is the best way to go.”
“Media are always anxious to know about any non-public communications, but publicity makes it much more difficult.”
Complicating matters for Choe and Kim may be their charges. The North indicted them for “taking active part in the state-sponsored political terrorism and anti-DPRK hostility” of the U.S. and South Korean governments.
“The crimes included gathering of information on the supreme leadership of the DPRK and its party, state and military secrets and situation and offering of them to south Korea’s Intelligence Service and manufacturing and distributing copies of anti-DPRK multimedia,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported in 2015.
Former Korean-American detainee Kenneth Bae told NK News that as a result of their charges and nationality, the pair may be in far worse facilities than where foreign detainees are typically kept.
“I do not know whether they will be still alive,” he said, because if you “go to the regular prison, your life expectancy is very short.”
“So if you receive more than five years’ prison term, most people will die there,” he warned. “Malnutrition, sickness, accidents, anything can happen.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Tuesday marked five years since two South Koreans were sentenced to life in North Korea for "espionage," with no updates about their detention or health recently made available by either government.
The cases of Choe Chun-gil and Kim Kuk-gi, who received "a penalty of indefinite compulsory labor" on June 23, 2015, have not been mentioned by North Korean state media since November 2017. An NK News request for comment to a DPRK embassy went unanswered.