April 24, 2017 | Policy Brief

North Korea Takes another American Hostage

April 24, 2017 | Policy Brief

North Korea Takes another American Hostage

North Korea detained an American academic on Saturday as he was preparing to leave the country, joining two other Americans already serving harsh sentences there. His capture is part of a pattern for Pyongyang, which uses Americans as bargaining chips in its standoff with Washington.

Authorities detained Kim Sang Duk, a U.S. citizen and professor at Yanbian University in China, who had spent a month teaching accounting at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

North Korea is detaining at least two other Americans: Kim Dong Chul, arrested in October 2015 on espionage charges, and Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia student arrested in January 2016 for removing a sign from his hotel. They were sentenced to hard labor for 10 and 15 years respectively.

Pyongyang knows it can use American hostages as leverage to allay U.S. pressure on the regime, and to receive the legitimization of receiving a high-level American envoy. In 2009, former President Bill Clinton secured the release of two American journalists, after North Korea granted amnesty in exchange for the visit of a high-level envoy. In 2010, Jimmy Carter traveled there to secure amnesty for an American teacher given an eight-year sentence. And in 2014, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper visited North Korea and negotiated the release of two Americans – one a missionary and tour operator and another who says he sympathized with the regime and sought “asylum” from it. Clapper later revealed that trip included a dinner with the head of North Korea’s intelligence organization, who ordered the cyber-attack on Sony Pictures in response to a satirical film it made about the Kim government.

Now, North Korea likely expects a similar payout to the $400 million the Obama administration paid to Iran following the 2015 nuclear deal.

The North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 mandated that the State Department issue warnings for travel to North Korea given “the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention” there. Congress could prohibit citizens from traveling to the country at all (with limited exceptions including humanitarian work, government activities, and the press, for example), when the House of Representatives takes up the Korean Interdiction and Modernization Act.

The American people expect their government to protect them from unjust imprisonment at the hands of the Kim regime.

Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, was an advisor to the U.S. delegation to the 2005 rounds of the Six-Party Talks and spent 17 years in the U.S. government. Follow him on Twitter: @_ARuggiero.


Cyber North Korea Sanctions and Illicit Finance