The North Korean authorities have informed the world that Pyongyang would, in the near future, stage another “open trial“. North Korean justice would consider the case of two US tourists – Matthew Todd Miller and Jeffrey Fowle – who recently travelled to North Korea on two separate trips and were arrested there under somewhat murky circumstances.
According to the short statement issued, both US nationals stand accused of “perpetrating hostile acts during their trips to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [as North Korea is known to its inhabitants]”.
Given the highly repressive nature of the North Korean state, not known for its relaxed attitude to political criminals and dissenters of any kind, this statement sounds rather ominous. There is good reason to believe, however, that for the two accused, this may actually turn out to be good news. If we look at the precedents, it appears highly likely that the show trial will soon be followed by the quick release of both men.
Dangerous internal elements
While the North Korean political system was once patterned after former premier Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, in one important regard North Korea is quite different from its Soviet prototype. In the Soviet Union under Stalin, a few hundred thousand foreigners were arrested, and often were eventually executed or perished in prisons. Most of them were citizens of the-then potentially hostile nations such as, say, Poland, but also many others were starry-eyed Western leftists who went to the “socialist paradise”.
North Korea is not like this. While the North Korean government has demonstrated great willingness to deal ruthlessly with internal elements it sees as dangerous, it does not make a habit of killing or even imprisoning foreigners – at least, this has been the case since the end of the Korean War (1950-1953).
So far, there have been only three cases in which foreigners stood trial in North Korea and, having been accused of political crimes, got lengthy prison sentences which they actually had to serve. Two of these cases are essentially ancient history: They happened in the late 1960s. The victims were two radical leftists, a Frenchman called Jacques Sedillot and Ali Lameda, a Venezuelan. These men were at the time, employed by the North Korean government as editors of propaganda material. It is not known why they got into trouble, but they were arrested and spent a few years in a regular North Korean prison camp. Lameda was released and allowed to go overseas, while his French colleague perished in North Korea, either in prison or soon after his release.
While the North Korean government frequently and loudly claims that religious worship is permitted in North Korea, the Bible and other religious literature are strictly banned from being taken into the country – and giving them away is of course a no-no. The North Korean media keeps repeating the old Marxist dictum that ‘religion is the opium of the masses’ and treats religious texts … accordingly – pretty much how many governments would treat actual opium.
There is another more recent case. In late 2012, the North Korean authorities arrested Kenneth Bae on charges of subversion. He stood trial in early 2013 and was condemned to 15 years in prison. At the time of writing, he is still in prison and unlikely to be released anytime soon.
The sad story of Bae might be seen as a bad omen, but in reality he is a very special case. Unlike all other foreigners who have gotten themselves in trouble in North Korea recently, Bae was likely involved in actual anti-regime political activities. Bae was an active supporter and organiser of North Korea’s catacomb church.
Thus far, he seems to be the only foreign activist that the North Korean authorities have actually managed to catch, and it seems that they are going to make an example out of him. They seemingly wish to deter any support for anti-government dissent inside North Korea by outsiders.
Still, it is remarkable that Bae is not kept in a regular prison camp, but is detained in a separate facility – essentially a one-man prison where conditions are far better than in normal camps and where he cannot see or hear dangerous things. This treatment implies that in due time, the North Korean authorities are likely to release him as well.
However, it appears that the case of Bae is not applicable to Miller and Fowle. It is not clear what they have actually done wrong and available reports are contradictory.
It has been claimed in the media that Fowle deliberately left a Bible when checking out of his hotel room in Pyongyang. While the North Korean government frequently and loudly claims that religious worship is permitted in North Korea, the Bible and other religious literature are strictly banned from being taken into the country – and giving them away, is of course a no-no.
North Korean media keeps repeating the old Marxist dictum that “religion is the opium of the masses” and treats religious texts accordingly – pretty much how many governments would treat actual opium.
Miller’s case seems to be further complicated. Initially, the North Korean authorities reported that the 24-year-old American tore up his visa at the immigration checkpoint and asked for political asylum in North Korea.
Unlike the case with Bae, there is no information about any long-term involvement of either Miller or Fowle with any kind of missionary activity or excessively zealous political activism. Thus, in all probability, we are talking about foreigners who committed single and isolated acts of a kind that the North Korean authorities frown upon.
As a matter of fact, we have seen a number of similar cases in recent years. In 1996 for example, Evan Hunziker, then in his mid-20s, after a drunken bet with his friends, swum across the Yalu River from China to North Korea. He was arrested, accused of espionage, was forced to issue a statement indicating his guilt and was soon released after the US government dispatched a high-level delegation to get the adventurer back.
Another example was the case of two US TV journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who in 2009, crossed into North Korea from China. They were immediately arrested and then the usual routine was followed: relatively comfortable detention, show trial and repatriation after the personal visit of none other than the former US President Bill Clinton.
Spies and saboteurs
The most recent incident of this kind took place last year when 85-year-old Merrill Newman, a US veteran of the Korean War was detained in Pyongyang after he began to make enquiries about friends who were once dispatched on secret missions to North Korea and never came back.
Since in North Korea’s official worldview such individuals are seen as spies and saboteurs, and the veteran was a trainer of people perceived as such, the old man was detained and had to “enjoy” the hospitality of the North Korean government longer than he had initially planned. Nonetheless, his detention lasted merely two months and ended in the usual fashion, with the usual admission of guilt (written in the first-person but in broken English) and released.
Somewhat similarly, John Short, an Australian missionary, was arrested while giving out religious texts to passers-by on North Korean streets – in February this year. He was soon released, though.
Of course, North Korea is a country whose behaviour is not always predictable – especially now that it is run by a young, inexperienced and impulsive leader who is clearly more afraid of ideological contamination than his father was. Nonetheless, if the past is a guide, we can expect that the tribulations of Miller and Fowle are likely to end soon.
Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia.