The recent detention of two American educators by North Korean authorities is raising questions about whether the Christian-funded academy where they taught should be operating in this highly repressive state, where proselytizing is a serious crime.
North Korean state media confirmed this week that Kim Hak-song, a Chinese-Korean and naturalized U.S. citizen, who was working as an agriculture researcher at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), was arrested on suspicion of “hostile acts” against the state.
A PUST accounting instructor, Kim Sang Dok, a U.S. citizen who also goes by the name Tony Kim, was arrested in April on the same vague charges at the Pyongyang International Airport.
It is unclear if these two American citizens were apprehended for trying to spread Christian beliefs in North Korea, which is a capital crime and considered an existential threat to the unquestionable authority of the ruling Kim family. But their connections to the Christian-funded school and North Korea’s precedent of charging missionaries with “hostile acts” suggest the pretext of illicit religious activities may be used to justify their arrests.
A spokesman for the university said the arrests of the two faculty members were “not connected in any way with the work of PUST.”
The school, founded in 2010 by Korean-American evangelical Christian James Kim educates the children of the North Korean elite. There are 500 undergraduate students and 60 graduate students.
Korean-American writer Suki Kim taught English at PUST in 2014 and later documented her experience in the book, Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.
During a 2015 Google Talk seminar, she described how the faculty was always under surveillance, their classes recorded, movements restricted, and how her government counterpart minder would casually refer to topics she included in personal emails.
“So I would say (in an email) for example I woke up today at 4 a.m., or whatever, and then the minder would repeat that to me. He would say, ‘Did you get up at 4 a.m. this morning? You must be tired,’” Suki Kim said.
Although the school adheres to the government prohibition on proselytizing, it also attracts many evangelical Christians to become volunteer faculty members that receive no income for teaching. Kim Hak Song, who was arrested this week, had been doing missionary work in China before joining PUST.
Suki Kim recently wrote in the Washington Post that while PUST complies with the restrictions on overt religious activities, their long-term mission is to convert North Koreans, “through seemingly unconditional kindness, with the hopes of those beneficiaries eventually turning to the religion out of gratitude.”
She also wrote that the American evangelicals on the PUST faculty are in a particularly vulnerable situation if the Kim Jong Un government wants to send a political warning to the United States, and that, “the timing of North Korea’s arrest of Tony Kim is no accident.”
Tensions between North Korea and the United States have risen over Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests. U.S. President Donald Trump has been pressuring China to increase sanctions on Pyongyang to halt its nuclear program and has emphasized the United States would consider the use of military force to respond to future tests.
North Korea in the past had detained Americans to gain outside concessions for their release, which sometime involved high-profile U.S. missions sent to secure the release of detainees.
PUST spends roughly $2 million annually on operating expenses, the school said in a statement. Much of it comes from Korean churches in the United States and South Korea. The education is free, and the curriculum includes electronic and computer engineering, international finance, and agriculture and life sciences.
Supporters say this type of assistance and engagement will change hearts and minds over time, and foster constructive future relationships between the next generation of North Korean leaders and the outside world.
However critics like Joshua Stanton, a Washington-based attorney and author of the One Free Korea blog, has accused the school of providing vital technical training to future North Korean hackers and has called for PUST to be suspended in accordance with United Nations sanctions prohibiting activities that may contribute to the “proliferation sensitive nuclear activities or ballistic missile-related programs.”
“One could hardly invent a better demonstration of how ‘engagement’ has failed to change Pyongyang than a hostage crisis at PUST,” he recently wrote in his blog.
Korean-American Kim Dong Chul is also serving 10 years on espionage charges and Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in 2016 for removing a propaganda poster from a hotel.
Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.