Korean Businessman, in Flushing, Tells All about North Korea

President Donald Trump met with Dong-chul Kim, Hak-song Kim and Sang-duk Kim, who were released from North Korea on May 9 last year. Dong-chul Kim and others arrived at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. (Photo courtesy of Dong-chul Kim)

[Editor’s note: Businessman Dong-chul Kim, who was imprisoned in North Korea for two and a half years, gave a long interview to Ahyoung Kim of The Korea Daily. Below are excerpts of three parts of the interview.]

Interview [1]

Dong-chul Kim, 62, who was detained in North Korea in November 2015 and released on May 9 last year, said in an interview with The Korea Daily: “I will break my silence and let people know what I saw and felt in North Korea for 17 years.” [For many years he was a business executive in North Korea.] Kim was the first U.S. citizen to set up and run a business in North Korea, and received an honorary doctorate in politics, economics and philosophy from Kim Il-sung University. He also served as the leader of the Foreign Trade Association in the Najin special economic zone in North Korea, and as a guide for Koreans who visited from overseas. (…)

Kim’s voice was calm during the interview in Flushing on April 25. Over the course of four and a half hours, he said he feels a “love-hate” relationship with North Korea more than 10 times. When he was asked if he fears retaliation, he answered, “I will say whatever I want,” adding: “I have already died once (in prison).”

When Kim was first known to have been detained in North Korea in 2015, his acquaintances said that he was doing his business and missionary work in North Korea. However, he said: “I was only doing missionary work at heart – it is actually impossible to preach religion in North Korea.” Also, he said: “It turned out that my wife, who I met in the U.S., was close to some of the North’s key figures. My wife’s family was related to those who fought against Japan with Kim Il-sung.” He explained that his first visit to North Korea and his long-term business in North Korea were made at the invitation of the North Korean government.

(…)

Dong-chul Kim, however, was arrested in October 2015 in Nasun, North Hamgyong province, on the charge of espionage and was detained for 31 months until May 9 last year.

“I was caught keeping watch on North Korea and passing information (at the request of the U.S. and South Korean governments). The U.S. wanted information on its military capabilities, including its nuclear development, and South Korea wanted information on the political situation, such as the activities of key figures in the North Korean regime,” he said.

“The hardest thing during the six months of investigation [by North Korean officials] was not to reveal to whom I provided information and what information I provided,” he said. “Once I was arrested, nobody helped me, and after I was released, I couldn’t reach anyone who used to be in contact with me,” he said. “I don’t blame them because I assume they were under certain circumstances (that made it hard for them to respond to me). I just want to say everything I want since I have done my part.”

When Kim’s detention was reported, the media reported that he was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor, but he said he was sentenced to death in the first trial. In the following trials, his sentence was eventually reduced to 15 years in prison and finally he was sentenced to 10 years of labor by the Supreme Court.

“I had received a lot of commendations for not only my contribution to economic development, but also for procuring medical supplies for Kim Jong-il when he was sick,” he said, speculating that his wife’s family’s close relationship with Kim Il-sung and his achievements were considered a lot in his commutation.

Kim standing in front of Pyongyang Gymnasium in 2008 (Photo courtesy of Dong-Chul Kim)

Interview [2]: “Warmbier was framed as a diplomatic hostage.”

Dong-chul Kim, who was detained by the North Korean regime from October 2015 to May 2018, said: “I accepted the requests for spying (from the South Korea and U.S. government) because I have always had complaints about the regime as well as compassion for the people who suffer under the regime (even if I worked for the North Koreans).”

Kim said that while detained in North Korea, he also encountered Otto Warmbier and Pastor Hyeon-soo Lim, who were released before him.

Kim said: “In order to avoid surveillance by the guards, I used to communicate by gesticulating with Hyeon-soo Lim, who was imprisoned in the same place for about a year and two months when he worked in a labor camp. Warmbier was interrogated for about 10 days in a room across the hall from me while I was being interrogated for six months.” He claimed that Warmbier was “a diplomatic hostage who was framed.”

“It was reported that the reason why he was first detained was ‘because he took a propaganda poster off the wall to give it to a friend,’ but that can’t be true,” he said.

Kim said that due to his long life in North Korea, he even knows where the restrooms are at the Koryo Hotel, where Warmbier stayed. He added: “The Koryo Hotel is a place where foreigners stay, so there are no propaganda posters on the wall. I believe that for diplomatic reasons at the time, North Korea needed a hostage so the regime framed and manipulated evidence to justify holding him. I am willing to step forward and testify.”

Kim was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor and sent to the prison where eight people watched him. Kim said: “I didn’t even have a place to die from hanging, and I had to sit in a chair in front of a camera directed at me all day long.” He added that he had to sit in the chair and raise his hand until the guard came if he wanted to go to the bathroom.

As others who were imprisoned by North Korea testified, he said that he always suffered from hunger.

“It was better to work in the labor camp than be in the room because I could find something to eat there,” he said. He was given three meals a day and each meal allotted to him was 80 grams of rice that had turned black from being kept underground as provisions for the army, and three pieces of salted radish.

Because of hunger, he looked for anything he could eat and put it in his mouth during labor, avoiding the guards’ eyes.

“If I come across a white, chubby larva, I put it in my mouth,” Kim said. “When I saw corn I would quickly eat it raw and burry the cob in the ground, and I used to have stomachaches while eating raw potatoes to relieve my hunger.” He added: “If you get caught eating secretly at a labor site, you get beaten by young soldiers.” He held up his left middle finger and explained that the finger was bent as a result of beatings.

The prison and medical facilities were also harsh. He said: “One time, I fell asleep in my room, and when I opened my eyes, I was lying on the cold ground under a fence.” He explained that he almost died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The soldiers found him unconscious in the room because of the smoke from briquet that had seeped into the room, and instead of offering first aid, they laid him down outside the building for fresh air. When he regained conscious, the soldiers were surprised and brought him into the prison. A bowl of cold kimchi soup was delivered to him before a doctor came. When Kim said that he felt nauseous, the soldiers forced him to drink the kimchi soup and pushed him to smell the soil outside even after the doctor’s treatment.

“Now that I already died once at that time, I just want to say that I want to tell you the truth about North Korea,” Kim said.

Kim after being sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in the final trial on April 29, 2016. (Photo via AP)

Interview [5]: “No. 429, change your clothes.”

Dong-chul Kim, who had been detained for more than 30 months after being sentenced to 10 years of hard labor for espionage in North Korea, said that he had no knowledge of the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo until the day he was released on May 9 last year.

Kim recalled the morning of his release: “As usual, I had to work up on the mountain after finishing my meal by 7 a.m. I was working where there was nothing but barbed wire and wild animals around, and a soldier suddenly came up and said, ‘No. 429, let’s go down to the camp.’ So I walked down to the ground and there were North Korean officials from the Ministry for Protection of the State (State Security Department) who had investigated me before. (Because I knew who they were) I was glad to see them and felt anxious at the same time.”

The officials gave Kim the plain clothes he wore when he was detained in October 2015, and said, “No. 429, change your clothes.” When he asked why they only answered that they didn’t know. There was no indication of a meeting between Kim Jong-un and Pompeo to discuss his release. After a long journey by car with his eyes covered, he was dropped off in front of the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang, North Korea, where international events or meetings with foreign government officials take place.

“I didn’t think anyone was looking for me because I had been in prison for almost three years without any visitors, so I felt a growing anxiety,” Kim said. After moving to the waiting room on the second floor, his blood pressure went up and he collapsed. He remained in the room for several more hours, and received medical checkups and fluid treatment. There were three foreigners, North Korean police, plainclothes officials and journalists in the room.

Kim said: “Even then, I was still wondering what was going on.” He added that North Korean officials suddenly ordered him to write a letter of apology. As he wrote a letter of apology and signed with his thumbprint, the chief judge of the Supreme Court of North Korea started reading the letter of apology and declared: “As No. 429 has served his sentence diligently, I am extraditing him to the United States.”

With a lot on his mind, Kim arrived in front of a plane marked with the American flag and North Korean guards shook hands with him, saying, “Goodbye.” Kim said, “I shook hands and hugged them, saying, ‘I don’t blame you. Take care.’ My feelings at the time were beyond words. It’s a moment when I felt a great emotion with mixed thoughts.”

In his last interview with The Korea Daily on May 1, Kim said: “I don’t hate the officials (who had been interrogating and monitoring me),” and added, “I feel love and hatred…They know that their actions were wrong, but they could not help it because they were wearing military uniforms, so I do not blame those who sympathize with the regime.”

Kim said: “To achieve genuine peace, the North Korean regime should end. I oppose the easing of sanctions to punish North Korea. They should be tightened by blocking the regime from earning foreign currency.”

Dong-chul Kim is scheduled to publish his book, “The Border Stander: Truth and Falsehood from North Korean Life” (working title) within this month. He also plans to officially launch “Dr. Kim Dong-chul’s Institute for Foreign Security” and with a subsidiary organization, “The Institute for North Korean Affairs,” in Seoul, South Korea. “I will research what I saw in person, including culture, economy, society, and education in North Korea,” Kim said. “If possible, I want to continue my activities with those who are interested in the same work in the U.S.”

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