By all accounts, a summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is imminent. The stakes for the meeting are high, and the issue on many minds is that of the denuclearization of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Despite the importance of the arms control negotiations, there is another issue that cannot be left off the table: the fate of three American citizens currently held in captivity by North Korea.
These three Korean-Americans, all sentenced by North Korea’s kangaroo courts to hard labor or indefinite imprisonment, cannot be allowed to suffer the same fate inflicted on Otto Warmbier by his brutal communist jailers.
Warmbier was a student at the University of Virginia who visited North Korea, a famously isolated state with a simmering hostility to all but the most obsequious foreign visitors.
Allegedly, Warmbier’s “crime” was that he pulled a propaganda poster off the wall of a hallway in his hotel to bring home with him as a souvenir. Posters like this are ubiquitous in the DPRK, and tearing one down is considered a felonious offense against the dignity of the Worker’s Party of Korea and its totalitarian leader.
Warmbier was frog-marched before a North Korean court and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for this “crime.” Video footage shows him weeping in the courtroom as he read out what was an obviously staged and coerced confession. Like anyone facing trial in North Korea, Warmbier had no due process, no protection from cruel and unusual punishment, and no equal representation before the law.
On January 20, 2017, VOC called on newly-inaugurated President Donald Trump to protect the rights and due process of American citizens abroad.
Warmbier’s family urged two presidential administrations to bring their son home. They were elated when on June 12, 2017, the North Korean released him.
Soon, though, their elation became horror. As soon as his plane landed, Warmbier was rushed to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. It was obvious that during his incarceration, Otto Warmbier had been brutally beaten and tortured. (The North Korean regime simply said that he had “contracted botulism.”) In a vegetative state, he died six days after his return.
Kim Jong-un cannot be allowed to inflict this barbaric abuse, tantamount to murder, on the other three Americans in his clutches.
Who are the #USA3?
Kim Dong-chul, 64 years old, is a businessman and missionary. Born in South Korea, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1987.
He was arrested in October 2015 in the Rason Special Economic Zone—an area on the Russian-Chinese-North Korean where some limited market economic activity is allowed to take place. His arrest was not publicly announced until three months later.
North Korea alleges that Kim Dong-chul had been recruited by the South Korean government to spy on the DPRK’s nuclear program. Like Otto Warmbier, he made a televised confession, also clearly coerced. He was sentenced to 10 years’ incarceration.
Kim Sang-duk, also known as Tony Kim, is a 58-year-old Korean-American professor. He taught at the Pyongyang University for Science and Technology (PUST), an independent technical school that teaches North Korea’s elite, funded and staffed by Christian missionaries. Backers of PUST hope that this cultural outreach will one day lead to a more amicable relationship between North Korea and the outside world.
Kim had also traveled widely throughout the North Korean countryside, supporting orphanages and helping rural North Koreans who had been displaced by Typhoon Lionrock in 2016.
On April 22, 2017, Kim was arrested at Pyongyang International Airport. Authorities said he was “committing hostile acts” against the regime. “My father just finished his semester as a professor in North Korea when he was arrested,” said his son, Sol Kim, in a video posted by the Free USA 3 campaign. “No explanation was given. My family and I have had no contact with him since. He has not been charged with any crime and we do not know what his happening to him.”
“My family and I long to make contact with our dad. We want to tell him that soon he’s going to be a grandfather.”
Kim Hak-song (left) and his wife, Kim Mi-ok
Kim Hak-song, also a professor at PUST, is an ethnic Korean who was born in China and immigrated to the United States in the 1990s to pursue higher education. He too became a naturalized American citizen. An ordained minister and an agronomist by training, Kim taught the theory and practice of sustainable agriculture as a way to address the chronic food shortages and resulting rural malnutrition throughout the DPRK.
On May 6, 2017, Kim was detained by North Korean authorities for unspecified crimes. The North Korean media said that a “detailed investigation” was being conducted, but nothing has been published officially about Kim since that time.
“Professor Kim was a man who would call North Korea as his own country. He went to Pyongyang to devote himself to the development of North Korea’s agricultural technology so that the North can be self-sufficient with food,” said David Lee, a former classmate of Kim’s.
“He worked as a farmer,” his wife, Kim Mi-ok, told CNN. “He always loved the soil and the land… He went to the country and served with love and I believe his words that there was nothing else.”
“We are… fighting very diligently to get the three American citizens back,” said President Trump on April 18, 2018. “I think there’s a good chance of doing it.” No matter what is discussed in the realm of nuclear policy, the US-North Korean summit will only be a success if human rights—the rights of American citizens and those of the 25 million people of North Korea—are a matter of serious negotiation.