The North Korean regime says it has caught itself another American spy.
This latest one is a 21-year-old University of Virginia student who, we are told, took a propaganda banner from a staff-only area of an international hotel in Pyongyang. He was put up to doing this by American political interests or, perhaps, by a church in Ohio that wanted to display the North Korean propaganda on its premises. The student has claimed that the church promised him a used car worth $10,000 for the banner and $200,000 if he was detained by North Korean authorities over the matter.
After a one-hour trial the student was sentenced to six years at hard labor for his "crime."
My problem is, I don't believe it.
-- I don't believe a church would be interested in buying North Korean propaganda.
-- I don't believe anyone, even a naive college student, would risk imprisonment
in North Korea for $200,000 or even ten times that amount.
-- I don't believe the U.S. government is sending university students to North Korea
to conduct espionage missions, steal propaganda posters or overthrow the
government of the DPRK.
You can see the student's statement and his distressed emotional state in the video above.
If you don't want to watch, here are some quotes:
"I committed the crime of taking down a political slogan from the staff holding
area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel."
"I never, never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States
administration to commit a crime in this country."
"I wish that the United States administration never manipulate people like myself
in the future to commit crimes against foreign countries. I entirely beg you, the
people and government of the DPRK, for your forgiveness. Please! I made the worst
mistake of my life!"
(This reads almost as if written by a non-native English speaker. Hmm.)
The second reason is to get the Americans to send over a high-level official to negotiate the release of the prisoner. This too is useful as North Korean propaganda -- U.S. officials "begging" and Pyongyang showing "generosity."
How He Got There
The now-imprisoned student "criminal" traveled to North Korea as part of a group organized by Young Pioneer Tours, which advertises "budget tours to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from."
The student was detained by police when his group arrived at the airport for their flight back to Beijing. The tour leader, who watched as the student was led away, seems not to have remonstrated with the North Koreans.
"What happened, happened at the hotel, and my belief is that (he) kept it to himself out of hope it might go unnoticed," the tour leader reportedly said in a Reuters interview.
Nice way to hang a customer out to dry.
In fact, the State Department "strongly recommends against all travel (to North Korea) by U.S. citizens" because of "inconsistent application of its criminal laws."
Still, people go.
North Korea needs foreign currency and is willing to open itself to paying visitors, as long as the visitors play by the rules. The rules include avoiding religious talk, avoiding criticism of the terrible regime, sticking like glue to your tour group's itinerary and taking pictures only when given official permission. (Otherwise, it's just like going to Italy.)
The North Koreans have received much aid, chiefly food, over the last 25 years to alleviate extreme hunger and to reward the country for not developing nuclear weapons, which it went ahead and did anyway. Most of the food aid, it has been reported, went to elites and the army while less favored citizens continued to starve in the countryside.
Personally, I would not want to participate in a staged "official tour" that kept me from meeting normal North Korean citizens and that put more money into the pockets of its leadership cabal.
The show-trial convictions of innocent travelers have occurred with some regularity in recent years. Here are a couple other travelers, also convicted on flimsy charges, acknowledging their "crimes" and speaking well of their captors, almost certainly in hopes of being released. Both men were released, after five months and two years, respectively, being held in the country.
We can probably expect to see more of these in the future.