Sneaking into autocratic, cloistered North Korea has proven a strange and powerful temptation for some Americans. Sometimes the spur is deep religious conviction. Sometimes it’s discontent with America and a belief that things will be different in a country that can seem like its polar opposite. Quite often, analysts say, it’s mental or personal problems – or simply a case of a person acting upon a very, very bad idea.
During the Cold War, a handful of U.S. soldiers, some of whom knew little about life in the North, fled across the Demilitarized Zone and later appeared in North Korean propaganda films. Other defector soldiers had problems in their military units or issues with family at home. One was reportedly lured north by a female North Korean agent.
In the decades after the war, some Americans harbored “glamorous notions of North Korea as a socialist paradise,” said John Delury, an Asia expert at Yonsei University in Seoul. “But that’s just not part of the mix any more. Even in the furthest fringes of American online culture, you don’t find that notion.”
Mental health issues have often played a part, Delury said. “It’s seen as a forbidden country … a place that’s perceived in the American mind as being locked down,” Delury said. “To cross the border, in some ways, could be alluring” to people looking to break social rules.
Whatever their reasons, Americans detained in North Korea, including three currently in custody, are major complications for Washington, which must decide whether to let a U.S. citizen languish or to provide Pyongyang with a propaganda victory by sending a senior U.S. envoy to negotiate a release.
For North Korea, getting a senior U.S. official or an ex-president to visit is a huge propaganda coup. It allows Pyongyang to plaster its newspapers and TV screens with scenes meant to show its powerful leaders welcoming humbled American dignitaries, said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in South Korea.
Washington has repeatedly offered to send its envoy for North Korean human rights to discuss the currently detained Americans, but Pyongyang has so far balked.
“The North Koreans are in no hurry,” Lankov said. “It’s a sellers’ market. They say, ‘This is our price: a senior visit and some concessions. These are our goods, these Americans. If you don’t want to pay, that’s your problem. We can wait.’”