Top 6 Foreign Nationals Detained in North Korea for Unusual Reasons

Updated on November 9, 2017

If you are asked to think of a popular tourist destination, North Korea is most likely not the first place that would come to your mind. But despite being one of the world's most isolated countries, a couple thousands of people travel to North Korea each year for tourism. Visitors are typically taken on tightly controlled tours to see monuments dedicated to the Kim family that has ruled the country for more than 70 years. Even though tourists are warned they should behave exactly as they are expected to, some still fail to follow the rules of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, sometimes leading to tragic consequences.

Eddie Young Su

Eddie Young Su Jun is a Korean-American business man from California, who was detained for “committing a crime” against North Korea after entering the country. There has been speculation that his “crime” was to use business trips to North Korea as a cover for secret missionary work, but this information was never confirmed.

Young was detained in North Korea from November 2010 to May 2011, and was freed on humanitarian grounds. His release coincided with a 5-day trip to North Korea by Robert King, the U.S envoy for North Korean human right issues. Robert King was supposedly in North Korea to assess the country’s food needs and discuss the disarming of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Many believe negotiations took place during his stay, but there has never been any evidence.

US Ambassador Robert King leaves Pyongyang with freed Eddie Young Su
US Ambassador Robert King leaves Pyongyang with freed Eddie Young Su

Kenneth Bae

In North Korea, religion primarily consists of Buddhism and Confucianism. The government deals with all opponents, and those of Christian faith are persecuted the most. Being a South-Korean born Christian Missionary, one would have easily guessed that visiting North Korea was not a good idea for Kenneth Bae. Kenneth Bae moved to the United States when he was 18, then moved back to China later on, where he created a tourism company called “Nations Tour” aimed at organizing Christian missionary trips to North Korea.

In December 2012, it was revealed that Kenneth Bae had been held by North Korea for a month. He was charged with many crimes, including preaching against the North Korean government in American and South Korean churches, encouraging North Korean citizens to bring down the government, and setting up base in China for the purpose of toppling the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Bae was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, which is a common punishment in the country. He ended up serving only 2 years of his sentence, mainly due to basketball star Dennis Rodman. Rodman tweeted and ranted about Bae, bringing awareness of the case. 2 years later, Kenneth Bae wrote a book about his story, entitled “Not forgotten: the true story of my imprisonment in North Korea”.

Matthew Miller

Matthew Miller was an American English teacher in South Korea since 2010. His case is very interesting, because he is the only individual who got incarcerated in North Korea with the intention to do so. How do you intentionally get locked up in Korea? Simply shred your tourist visa and demand political asylum upon your arrival in the country. Miller was accused of unruly behavior for his act, and was indicted on charges of committing a “hostile act” to the government. With no lawyer available and a 90-minute hearing, Miller was sentenced to 6 years of hard labor with no possibility of appeal. On November 8, 2014, following an intervention by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Matthew Miller was released 8 months after his trial, along with Kenneth Bae.

Why did Matthew Miller want to get locked up in North Korea? According to the court, Miller admitted that his ruse was intended to experience conditions in prison in one of the most secretive country in the world, and expose the country’s total dishonor to human rights. He also wanted to ask the people there questions he knew he was not allowed to ask, and said he was able to do so during his incarceration.

Jeffrey Fowle

Jeffrey Edward Fowle was arrested during a trip to North Korea after authorities discovered he had left a bible in a night club bathroom. This stands for a serious crime in North Korea, especially since Fowle did it on purpose. His tourist group was being watched, as all tourist groups in North Korea. The day after he left the bible in the night club, the tour guide asked if anybody left anything behind the day before. Fowle did not deny his actions and raised his hand.

For 2 days nothing happened. Then, at the airport in Pyongyang, Fowle was detained right before taking off. He was held in his hotel room for a month, then in a detention center for 5 months, without ever knowing what was going to happen to him.

His release was made possible thanks to a Swedish diplomat. Fowle’s intention was simply to spread Christian faith, but he and his family paid a high price for it.

Aijalon Gomes

Like a lot of U.S citizens detained in North Korea, Gomes’ motivations were religious. He illegally crossed the Sino-Korean border on January 25, 2010, with the intention to bring a message of peace, and offer humanitarian aid. He was immediately apprehended by border guards, and sentenced to “only” 8 years of hard labor with a $700,000 fine. Gomes had very little contact with the outside world, only able to speak to his mother one time on April 30, 2010.

After one unsuccessful attempt from the Obama administration to release Gomes, former president Jimmy Carter flew out to North Korea, in a personal humanitarian effort to negotiate Gomes’ release. His effort was rather expediting. He landed on August 25, and on August 26, Gomes was released. Carter reportedly “made an apology to Kim Yong Nam for American Gomes' illegal entry into North Korea and gave him the assurance that such case will never happen again”.

Jimmy Carter with Aijalon Gomes, back in America after being released from North Korea
Jimmy Carter with Aijalon Gomes, back in America after being released from North Korea

Otto Warmbier

Otto Warmbier is the latest American citizen to have been released by North Korea, and also the most tragic event related to international foreigner incarceration in North Korea.

Warmbier took a trip to North Korea departing from China and organized by Young Pioneer Tours in December 2015. His group (which included 10 other U.S citizens) went on a 5-day New Year’s tour of the country, ending in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square before returning to the Yanggakdo International Hotel. The next day, Otto Warmbier allegedly tried to steal a propaganda poster in a staff-only area of the hotel. This is serious crime in North Korea. He was arrested at Pyongyang International Airport just prior to departing North Korea, and later sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. As usual, the hearing was described as outrageous and shocking, and it was clear that this arrest along with others was made for political purposes.

On June 12, 2017, Rex Tillerson, the United States Secretary of State, announced that North Korea had released Warmbier. He was flown to the United States, in a comatose state. Doctors tried to determine what caused his coma, without being able to find anything. Otto Warmbier was in persistent vegetative state with no explanation. Many believe Otto Warmbier’s condition was due to the treatments he received during his incarceration.

6 days after his release, Otto Warmbier died at 2:20 pm on June 19, 2017. This mystery will most likely remain unsolved, as Warmbier’s family refused an autopsy.

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