The death of Otto Warmbier has focused the world’s attention on the plight of other foreign nationals North Korea has imprisoned to use as bargaining chips for aid and diplomatic concessions. In addition to three other Americans, the regime is known to be holding six South Koreans, a number of Chinese and a Canadian citizen, Canadian pastor, Hyeon Soo-lim, who was charged with subversion in 2015 and given a 15-year sentence, and then released a few days ago in a coma after 17 months internment.
In the hours since Warmbier’s parents announced that their 22-year-old son had died in hospital in Ohio, calls grew for the release of other foreign nationals who have been incarcerated for alleged crimes against North Korea. The university student died on Monday, days after North Korea released him 17 months into his sentence of hard labor for attempting to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel near the end of an organized tour.
Foreign detainees are likely to be sent to a prison in the city of Sariwon, south of the capital, Pyongyang, where they are treated more leniently than the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 North Koreans held inside the country’s vast infrastructure of prisons, labor camps and political re-education camps.
“North Korean prisoners are routinely tortured, but it’s unlikely that that happens to foreign detainees. They are also well-fed compared with North Korean inmates,” said Jiro Ishimaru, of Asia Press, an Osaka-based organization with a network of contacts in North Korea. “The biggest problem is the toll incarceration in a place like North Korea takes on their mental health.”
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea used Warmbier’s death to draw attention to the incarceration of ordinary citizens who are “starved, tortured, brutalized and killed in North Korea’s political prison camps”.