North Korea Loves Accusing Americans of ‘Hostile Acts.’ That’s Because ‘Hostile Acts’ Can Be Just About Anything.

North Korea Loves Accusing Americans of ‘Hostile Acts.’ That’s Because ‘Hostile Acts’ Can Be Just About Anything.

When University of Virginia student Otto Frederick Warmbier entered North Korea for an unconventional New Year’s vacation last month, he planned to stay for only five days.

But on Friday, 20 days after his scheduled Jan. 2 departure, government officials in Pyongyang announced publicly for the first time that the 21-year-old American never left. Instead, he has been detained for his involvement in “anti-state activity” intended to weaken North Korea.  

According to state-run Korean Central News Agency, Warmbier “was arrested while perpetrating a hostile act against the DPRK after entering it under the guise of tourist for the purpose of bringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity at the tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its ma­nipu­la­tion.”

U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement Friday that Washington is “aware of media reports” that an American has been detained in North Korea. Toner said that no more information could be shared about Warmbier, who is a junior at UVA, due to “privacy considerations.” But he added that when Americans are detained in North Korea, the U.S. works with the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang because the U.S. and North Korea do not have a diplomatic relationship.

And because Warmbier is far from the first American to be detained in the world’s most isolated state, Washington has plenty of experience negotiating for the release of prisoners.

Below, Foreign Policy has chronicled a sampling of reasons why Americans found themselves detained in North Korea. One pattern that stands out? “Hostile acts” against the government.

Matthew Miller

In April 2014, Matthew Miller’s dream of being arrested in North Korea finally came true. The then-25-year-old didn’t believe Western media reports that North Korea was as hostile as it was made out to be, so he traveled to the Hermit Kingdom from China with the intention to stay indefinitely. He gave a Hong Kong-based tourist agency false emergency contact information, and once he was on the airplane, he destroyed his tourist visa. He then tried to claim asylum in North Korea, thinking it would prevent the American government from getting involved. Instead, he was charged with entering the country illegally and committing “hostile acts” against the government. That “hostile act” may have been refusing to leave.

They wanted me to leave. The very first night they said, ‘We want you to leave on the next flight,’” he told NK News after he was freed. “But I refused. I just did not leave…My main fear was that they would not arrest me when I arrived.”

His case quickly became a major headache for the American government. Seven months after he was arrested, a visit from U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper helped to free him and Korean-American prisoner Kenneth Bae.

Kenneth Bae

In November 2012, Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American from Lynnwood, Washington, was leading a tour group to a special economic zone in Rason, North Korea, when he was arrested by security forces who accused him of crimes against the state. Among their accusations: Bae allegedly committed “hostile acts” against the government and was plotting to overthrow the leaders in Pyongyang — a crime that in North Korea can be punishable by death. After a short trial in spring 2013, he was sentenced to 15 years hard labor. After his sentencing was announced, state-run news agencies said that “in the process of investigation, he admitted that he committed crimes aimed to topple the DPRK with hostility toward it.” They even offered the following detailed information about how they figured out his real motives: “His crimes were proved by evidence.”

In November 2014, Bae was freed with Miller, thanks in part to Clapper.

“It’s been an amazing two years, I learned a lot, I grew a lot, I lost a lot of weight,” Bae said after he landed in the U.S.  

Jeffrey Fowle

When Jeffrey Fowle went to North Korea with a tour group in April 2014, he didn’t just plan to see a country most Westerners have never had the chance to visit. The father of three from Ohio had a side mission: He decided to leave a Korean-English bible in a hotel bathroom and hoped someone looking to explore Christianity would be the one to find it. Instead, government officials did, and accused him of  “hostile acts” against the country, although he was never officially charged. Still, he was detained for nearly six months — one in a hotel and five in prison. With the help of Sweden, he was released in October 2014.

Euna Lee and Laura Ling

American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling crossed into North Korea from China in 2009 when they were working on a documentary about defectors from the isolated state. Both were stopped by security officials and found guilty of entering the state illegally, then sentenced to 12 years hard labor. In prison, they were separated and fed rice topped with rocks. After 140 days of detainment, they were freed after diplomatic intervention from former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who negotiated their release. At that time, former North Korean President Kim Jong Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong Un, still held power.

“Clinton expressed words of sincere apology to Kim Jong Il for the hostile acts committed by the two American journalists against the DPRK after illegally intruding into it,” North Korean state news reported after their release. “Clinton courteously conveyed to Kim Jong Il an earnest request of the U.S. government to leniently pardon them and send them back home from a humanitarian point of view.”

Evan Hunziker

In August 1996, Evan Hunziker drunkenly swam across the Yalu River from China into North Korea, where he claimed he planned to preach the gospel. He was quickly detained by North Korean officials and accused of being a spy. Then-Congressman Bill Richardson of New Mexico helped negotiate his release — which came on the eve of Thanksgiving that same year, and involved a payment of $5,000 to Pyongyang for hotel charges accrued during Hunziker’s relatively comfortable detainment. Less than a month after his release, he was found dead with a bullet wound to his head, in what is believed to have been a suicide.

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