The three American citizens still being held in North Korea are in fairly healthy condition and were allowed to meet with the State Department’s top official on North Korea, Joseph Yun, when he traveled to Pyongyang earlier this week.
Yun went on a secret mission to North Korea to bring out Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who was detained in January last year and had fallen into a coma for reasons that are not yet clear.
Warmbier arrived home in Cincinnati on Tuesday and was being treated at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. His condition is not known, but his parents plan to speak to the media on Thursday.
The revelation that he had been in a coma in North Korea for more than a year will inject new momentum into efforts to have the other three released, said Evans Revere, a former senior official in the State Department who still talks to North Korean representatives.
“The suspicions and the concerns about the way that Otto was treated is going to lead to a very determined effort by the administration to put pressure on North Korea and get these men out of there,” Revere said. “The North Koreans will realize there will be very negative consequences.”
While he was collecting Warmbier from Pyongyang, Yun, the special representative for North Korea policy, met with the three American citizens still being held there on Monday, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting.
All three men were in a healthy state under the circumstances, one said. There was no information about where they were being held or under what conditions.
The three include Kim Dong-chul, a 63-year-old former Fairfax, Virginia, man who was arrested in October 2015, a few months before Warmbier.
Kim had moved to the northeastern Chinese city of Yanji in 2001 and had been working in the Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone, just over the border in North Korea, as head of a trade and hotel services company.
Kim was accused of espionage and subversion, and was brought before the cameras in March last year to deliver a highly choreographed confession, similar to the one that Warmbier was made to give.
That was the last time Kim had been seen in public. In April, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor.
The Swedish ambassador to North Korea, who represents American interests there because Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic relations, accompanied Yun.
The ambassador was allowed to visit Kim last month, according to another person with knowledge of the visit. “He was okay,” he said, on condition of anonymity to discuss the highly sensitive situation.
The Swedes had been denied consular access to all the American detainees until last month, following an agreement reached during a secret meeting in Oslo between Yun and high-level North Korean officials.
They agreed then that Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang would be allowed to visit the four Americans imprisoned by the North. But the Swedes were allowed to see only one detainee – Kim Dong-chul.
They were not permitted to see Warmbier until North Korean diplomats at the United Nations in New York had disclosed his condition to American officials, which they did on June 6.
The other two Americans being held were both affiliated with the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a private institution run by Korean American Christians that is known as PUST.
Kim Hak-song, who had been working as an agricultural consultant at PUST, was detained in early May and arrested on suspicion of “hostile acts” against North Korea, the official Korean Central News Agency said. “A relevant institution is now conducting a detailed investigation into his crimes,” it said.
This came on the heels of the arrest of another U.S. citizen, Kim Sang-dok, or Tony Kim, who had been teaching a class in international finance and management at PUST, in late April.
Neither has been seen publicly since their arrests because the North Korean regime has not yet paraded them in front of the cameras or put them on trial.
PUST is the only private educational institution in North Korea. It is run by a Korean American professor and funded largely by Christian groups. It began offering classes in English to the North Korean elite in 2010.
At least 16 U.S. citizens have been detained in North Korea in the past 10 years, according to the State Department’s travel advisory. Most of them have been released only after a high-profile envoy, including former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, traveled to North Korea to get them out.
The State Department has steadily increased its travel warning for North Korea as more Americans have been detained.
It now advises all Americans against traveling to North Korea, warning of the “serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement.” “This system imposes unduly harsh sentences for actions that would not be considered crimes in the United States,” it says.
A Canadian pastor is also being held in North Korea, having been given a life sentence after being convicted of subversion.
Lim Hyeon-soo, who is in his early 60s, had visited North Korea about 100 times but was arrested in Pyongyang in 2015 while traveling on a humanitarian mission.