Enigma of American Matthew Miller jailed in North Korea

Not much is known about 20-something Matthew Miller who was arrested in North Korea in April this year for tearing up his tourist visa after entering the isolated country with a tour group. Last week, Miller was sentenced to six years hard labor.

Matthew Miller, the U.S. citizen imprisoned in North Korea on espionage charges, spent months in South Korea posing as an Englishman named “Preston Somerset”, acquaintances who met or worked with him said. The 25-year-old native of Bakersfield, California, did not seem to have close friends, a regular job or means of support during the months he spent in Seoul over a period of at least two years, they said. He indicated no interest in North Korea.

Instead, he spent time and money hiring artists to help create his own anime adaption of Alice in Wonderland, the Lewis Carroll fantasy with which he seemed fascinated. At one point he joined a debating class that helped Koreans converse in English, but rarely spoke.

More and more, North Korea seems to be a magnet for adventurous foreigners drawn to the world’s most isolated nation. On Tuesday, South Korean marines arrested an American man who had been swimming in a river that flows towards North Korea and said he had been trying to go to the North to meet its leader, Kim Jong Un, Korean media reported.

North Korea is open to but suspicious of Western visitors and any out-of-the-ordinary behavior by tourists is quickly investigated. Photographs from Miller’s trial in Pyongyang showed a page from his notebook that said he had been “involved” in WikiLeaks and had attempted to access files from U.S. military bases in South Korea. The Japan-based Choson Sinbo newspaper, which is loyal to Pyongyang and attended Miller’s trial, said Miller had promised North Korean authorities he could reveal U.S. state secrets “as if he was Edward Snowden”.

Miller exhibited some unusual behavior while living in Seoul, but nothing linked to North Korea, his acquaintances said. Those who met him in South Korea only recalled a slightly odd, quiet young man who gave little away.

“It was very curt and very awkward, speaking to him,” said Mike Stewart, a Seoul-based artist’s studio director who met Miller last year, when he received an e-mail from “Preston Somerset”, which Miller later said was a pen name. “He seemed very birdy, like ready to bolt at any minute, like he didn’t know what to say and things like that.”

Francis Cole – an American who produces Japanese-style erotic art – said on a freelancing website that he was one of several artists, writers and musicians Miller commissioned to help produce his own Alice in Wonderland-inspired fantasy tale in the style of a Japanese anime. Miller, under his Preston Somerset alias, and Cole, with the username ‘Eirhjien’, were members of the deviantArt.com community where people can post and share user-made artwork.

It is still not clear what happened in the months between Miller’s quest to self-publish his own version of Alice in Wonderland, and his decision to go to North Korea.

[Read full Irrawaddy Magazine article]

North Korea unresponsive to offer of a US envoy visit

North Korea is not accepting American offers to send a high-level envoy to seek the release of three detained Americans:

  • 24-year-old Matthew Miller of Bakersfield, California, who this week was sentenced to six years hard labor, deepening U.S. concern over the cases.
  • Jeffrey Fowle, of Miamisburg, Ohio, who was arrested in May for leaving a Bible at a sailor’s club, is expected to be called to trial soon.
  • Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary from Lynwood, Washington, is serving out a 15-year sentence for alleged “hostile acts.”

North Korea often accuses the U.S. of refusing to talk with it.

Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, would not specify whom the administration was now willing to send, since the offer of him visiting was earlier turned down. But Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said he has been told by the administration that it has offered in recent weeks to send Glyn Davies, who leads U.S. diplomacy on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and Pyongyang has not responded favorably.

Davies has not met with North Korean officials since an agreement on a nuclear freeze in exchange for food aid collapsed in the spring of 2012 after the North tested a long-range rocket. Since then, relations have frayed further.

“The issues that are hampering contact are fundamental issues about, in particular, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But certainly, releasing the American citizens that are held there is an important step that might lead to broader discussions and contacts in other areas. The real question is whether the North Koreans want anything other than trying to create problems,” King said.

Former President Jimmy Carter on Tuesday criticized what he characterized as a refusal by President Obama to hold direct talks with the North Korean government. “I think they use these three hostages,” Carter said at the Carter Center in Atlanta, “to try to get the United States to talk to them diplomatically.”


South Korean President says door open for talks with North Korea

South Korean President Park Geun-hye said the door is open for talks with the North during the upcoming U.N. General Assembly. However, Park said that Pyongyang must show sincerity in seeking a constructive dialogue and “walk the talk” in taking up South Korea’s offers for engagement aimed at ending a deadlock after a decade of warming ties.

North Korea will send its foreign minister, Ri Su Yong, to the U.N. General Assembly meeting, the highest ranking official from the reclusive state to attend in 15 years.

Park, who will soon travel to New York where she will address the General Assembly, has unveiled an ambitious initiative to engage North Korea to eventually bring the rivals close enough to make unification feasible for most on both sides.

Park also called for a “courageous decision” by Tokyo to improve ties between Japan and North Korea.


American about to swim to North Korea ‘to meet Kim Jong Un’

South Korean border guards arrested an American man who they believe was attempting to swim across a river to North Korea.

The man told investigators that he tried to go to North Korea to meet leader Kim Jong Un, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unidentified government source. It said the man, aged around 29, is a computer repairman from Texas who came to South Korea 10 days ago.

Americans are occasionally arrested after entering North Korea illegally from China, but a U.S. citizen trying to get in from South Korea is unusual.

In 1996, American Evan C. Hunziker entered North Korea by swimming across the Yalu River that marks the Chinese border. Hunziker, 26, who apparently made the swim on a drunken dare, was accused of spying and detained for three months.

Some Americans recently detained in North Korea include missionaries aiming to spread the gospel or draw attention to human rights abuses. On Christmas Day in 2009, Korean-American missionary Robert Park defiantly walked into North Korea from China calling for the dismantling of the North’s prison camps.


Defectors detail North Korea Leader’s slush fund

Choi Kun-chol says he didn’t know he had spent several years helping to fill Kim Jong Il’s private slush fund until he left North Korea. Like the thousands of others working under the North Korean government division known as Office 39, Mr. Choi was told by superiors that he was generating money to build a strong socialist economy.

In fact, according to details that Mr. Choi gave about his work it was a shadowy network of businesses that contribute to a private fund believed to be worth billions of dollars for the use of the ruling Kim family.

Defectors say Office 39 was created during the 1970s by Kim Jong Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong Un, to buy influence in his own rise to power. Office 39 has been accused by the U.S. and others of running an array of illicit money-making operations such as currency counterfeiting, narcotics and arms sales. Some experts estimate the total annual income of Office 39 to be up to a couple of billion dollars a year.

High-level defectors, security officials and analysts say the fund still enables current ruler Kim Jong Un to underwrite comfortable lifestyles for the upper tier of North Korean society to ensure their support. Analysts and security officials say the execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, late last year may have been because Mr. Jang had interrupted the flow of funds to Office 39.

Office 39 also runs legal businesses under a state-owned shell corporation known as the Daesong Group, according to Mr. Choi and other defectors.

[read full Wall Street Journal article

Free NK newspaper based in London’s Little North Korea

About 20,000 Korean immigrants live in New Malden, a suburb of southwest London. Approximately 600 of these immigrants are from North Korea, which is among the highest concentrations of North Korean refugees anywhere in the world. Certainly in Europe, New Malden is the closest thing to a “Little Pyongyang.”

In New Malden you may meet Joo-il Kim, a North Korean defector and editor of the Free NK newspaper. The Free NK newspaper was established to bring news from the rest of the world to North Korean citizens, as well as raising awareness of what really goes on in North Korea to the international community.

“We see this as the first stage, where we distribute the newspaper to the international community—mainly to the European communities—in order to raise awareness of what really goes on in North Korea,” said Joo-il. “Some articles are provided by correspondents in North Korea, and some are provided by other news companies that we have contracts with.”

Joo-il explains: “On first defecting, you’re hurt by the fact that a country you gave your life to—a country I trusted—actually deceived me and failed to protect its own people. My initial reaction was to swear to myself to never be deceived again, and I wanted to give up any sort of principles, ideologies, and any goals. I just wanted to protect myself and my brothers and sisters; I didn’t think about doing anything for the greater good or for other people.”

Now he says: “It is my duty to change things for future generations in North Korea.”

For Joo-il, the eventual goal is reunification of the North and South, and he sees the current community in New Malden as a good model for this—a place where North, South, and Chinese-Koreans all live together without incident.


American Matthew Miller given 6 years of hard labor in North Korea

North Korea’s Supreme Court on Sunday convicted a 24-year-old American man of entering the country illegally to commit espionage and sentenced him to six years of hard labor.

At a trial that lasted about 90 minutes, the court said Matthew Miller, of Bakersfield, California, tore up his tourist visa at Pyongyang’s airport upon arrival on April 10 and admitted to having the “wild ambition” of experiencing prison life so that he could secretly investigate North Korea’s human rights situation.

Showing no emotion throughout the proceedings, Miller waived the right to a lawyer and was handcuffed before being led from the courtroom after his sentencing. The court, comprising a chief judge flanked by two “people’s assessors,” ruled it would not hear any appeals to its decision.

Earlier, it had been believed that Miller had sought asylum when he entered North Korea. During the trial, however, the prosecution argued that was a ruse and that Miller also falsely claimed to have secret information about the U.S. military in South Korea on his iPad and iPod.

Miller was charged under Article 64 of the North Korean criminal code, which is for espionage and can carry a sentence of five to 10 years, though harsher punishments can be given for more serious cases.

The Associated Press was allowed to attend the trial.

A trial is expected soon for one of the other Americans being held, Jeffrey Fowle, who entered the North as a tourist and was arrested in May for leaving a Bible at a sailor’s club in the city of Chongjin. The third American, Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, is serving out a 15-year sentence for alleged “hostile acts.”

[Associated Press]

The US strategy concerning its citizens held in North Korea

American defendants Matthew Miller, Jeffrey Fowle and Kenneth Bae held in North Korea say they have but one hope — for a senior U.S. statesman to come and get them out.

The U.S. has repeatedly offered to send its envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, to Pyongyang to seek the freedom of the detainees, but without success. Finding a suitable middleman is no easy task, with the Obama administration immersed in bigger global crises and doggedly pursuing a policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea, which essentially means not getting drawn into engagements that might be seen as bowing to North Korean pressure.

“North Korea’s strategy may have worked in the past, but its brinkmanship with the American hostages is occurring against the backdrop of so many other crises that North Korea cannot use this issue to elevate itself as Washington’s primary concern,” said Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Washington D.C.-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

While having a senior U.S. statesman take detainees home has been used by the North to enhance the prestige of its leadership on the domestic stage, he said, “it causes headaches for sitting administrations, who do not want to risk losing control of the policy by having outsiders to their administration step into the picture.

The North has not officially demanded a senior representative visit to release the Americans, but it has made no secret of its growing frustration with Obama’s cold-shoulder treatment.

In the meantime, the three Americans caught in the middle say they are running out of hope.


Canadian government stands up for its citizens

The Canadian government has threatened to have its prime minister back out of a high-profile meeting with Chinese leadership if Beijing does not release a Canadian couple, Kevin and Julia Garratt, seized by Chinese authorities near the border of China and North Korea in August.

This is despite the fact that applying heavy pressure on China is raising warnings that Canada could pay an economic price for angering a country that does not look kindly on foreign interference in its affairs. The stakes are “huge” if Canada picks a fight with China, said Victor Gao, a director at the China National Association of International Studies.

The Garratts are Christian evangelicals from British Columbia who ran a coffee shop in the Chinese city of Dandong on the North Korean border. The couple, who first came to China 30 years ago, were taken away Aug. 4 by agents of China’s Ministry of State Security. They have not been formally charged or arrested.

Ottawa has made clear that if the couple is not released, it will decline an invitation to a meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Chinese leadership in Beijing around the time of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in early November.

Canadian government officials have let it be known they see the couple’s detention as a kind of reprisal for the arrest of Su Bin, a Chinese immigrant to Canada accused of masterminding efforts to steal U.S. military secrets.

[The Globe and Mail]

Many countries get their priorities wrong, not just North Korea

Excerpts of Guardian opinion by Dr J E Hoare, Britain’s first diplomatic representative in North Korea:

When I was working in North Korea in 2001-2002, the WFP programme was one of the largest in the world. It was never enough, however, and WFP always had to prioritize: Pregnant mothers, children and the old.

There were other benefits as well. It gave many North Korean officials the valuable experience of working with an international organization, useful exposure for those who had little experience of the outside world.

WFP has always had to fight off those who are opposed to giving any food to North Korea. Various reasons have been put forward for not supplying aid, including the charges that food was being diverted or that funds spent on the military should be spent on feeding the population. There be truth in such charges but … the vulnerable remain. We know from nutritional surveys that lack of good food in early years means that many will be permanently affected.

We also know that many countries get their priorities wrong; children go hungry even in the richest nations. To penalize those who are already suffering and who can do nothing to influence the government would be unjust. The WFP should be helped to continue its North Korean program.

 [The Guardian]