The Debate

Countering North Korea’s Hostage Diplomacy

Tourism in North Korea not only funds the regime, it also provides useful leverage in the form of arrested tourists.

Countering North Korea’s Hostage Diplomacy
Credit: US Army Photo by Edward N. Johnson

On an early morning in July 2008, gunshots rang out on a beach near the Mount Kumgang resort, a famous tourist site in North Korea. South Korean tourist Park Wang-ja had been shot dead by North Korean guards. Park, one of the South Korean tourists visiting Mount Kumgan Park, was shot in the back while walking on the beach in the early hours. One doesn’t need to be an expert on the Geneva Conventions, which strictly prohibit military operations against unarmed civilians, to see that her murder was undoubtedly a criminal offense committed by North Korean authorities. Yet instead of admitting its fault, North Korea kept provoking South Korea and the world. The North denied investigations into the incident and suspended tourist trips to the resort while throwing the entire blame on the South.

The incident underscored the true nature of the Pyongyang regime. Foreigners who are planning to visit North Korea for humanitarian or tourism purposes should keep that in mind. North Korea is always ready to turn good-willed visitors into criminals — as a result, visiting the country can be extremely dangerous.

Most recently, on May 7, North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported, “A relevant institution of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] detained American citizen Kim Hak-song, who was doing business in relation to the operation of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, on May 6 under a law of the DPRK on suspension of his hostile acts against it.” The previous month, on April 21, the North Koreans arrested Kim Sang-duk, a former Korean-American professor at the Yanbian University of Science and Technology, who had been involved in aid programs for children in North Korea. He was accused of “committing hostile acts aimed to overturn the North Korean system.” Those arrests bring the number of U.S. citizens currently in North Korean custody up to four.

Kim Hak-song became the 15th U.S. citizen to be held by the regime since 1996. Perhaps most famously, back in 2012, Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary who had visited North Korea for missionary and humanitarian purposes, was arrested over an alleged “attempt to overthrow North Korea.” He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and performed grueling work before he was released. During his 735 days in captivity, Bae was chained to oars and forced to watch propaganda videos on Sundays. He lost 60 pounds in just three months and was even moved to a hospital after he suffered malnutrition. After his release, he told the story of his detention in his memoir, Not Forgotten, which was published in English and Korean.

In 2016, meanwhile, Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was detained during a tourist trip to North Korea, which had been arranged by a North Korea tour operator. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for “plotting to overthrow North Korea.” Reports said that he had tried to steal a propaganda banner from a hotel as a joke, which led to his conviction on charges of subversion. Warmbier is still being held in North Korea.

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The most recent detentions came amid heightening tensions on the Korean peninsula, with the United States strengthening its pressure on North Korea. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that North Korea was just trying to show its strength and use American detainees as its “bargaining chips.” In others word, this was yet another case of North Korea’s hostage diplomacy. Like reckless terrorist groups, North Korea appears to have learned that detaining and then releasing U.S. citizens does work to its advantage.

In 2014, Bae was released after the U.S. national intelligence director flew to Pyongyang. In 2009 and 2010, several U.S. citizens were freed following visits from former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, respectively. The United States is not the only victim of this approach. In March this year, when Malaysia accused North Korea of murdering Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and started an investigation, Pyongyang used nine Malaysians, diplomats and their relatives, as hostages. As a result, Malaysia transferred Kim Jong-nam’s body and murder suspect Hyon Kwang-song, the second secretary at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, to North Korea. All these incidents show that the Pyongyang regime is highly skillful at hostage diplomacy.

Watching North Korea’s detention of innocent people, I would like to call for the international community to put tough restrictions on people-to-people exchanges with North Korea. With the currently increasing international pressure on North Korea, visitors in the country could be used as diplomatic pawns, as seen in the recent cases. Most of the foreigners who arrive at North Korea are civilian tourists, except for some humanitarian activists. Foreign tourists are a major source of foreign currency for the Pyongyang regime, which spends most of its foreign currency income on nuclear and missile development while ignoring its own people, who are struggling just to stay alive. In this context, one should be aware of the double danger of tourist trips to North Korea and refrain from visiting the country. And the international community should be aggressive in banning tour operators from organizing tours to the country. A reduction in civilian trips to North Korea would help cut off the regime’s foreign currency sources and also prevent foreign nationals from being taken hostage by the regime.

In this regard, it is highly meaningful that the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the North Korea Interdiction and Modernization of Sanctions Act (H.R. 1644) on May 4, which, among other things, bans material exchanges with the country, such as the overseas employment of North Korean slave labor. Now the U.S. government should implement a tight secondary boycott that would prohibit personnel and material exchanges between North Korea and third countries. And the United Nations should include measures that would strictly regulate human exchanges, including trips to North Korea, in its North Korea sanctions. Until North Korea gives up its hostage diplomacy, the world should stop providing potential hostages.

Lee Min-yong (Ph.D. in International politics, University of Maryland) is a professor at Sookmyung Women’s University and the chief advisor of the Sookmyung Research Institute of Global Governance in Seoul, South Korea.