3 American Detainees Head To U.S. From North Korea

May 9, 2018
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah. Let's talk about the three Americans that Jean Lee described as pawns. They are now - to repeat - on Secretary of State Pompeo's plane, expected to touch down at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, D.C., early Thursday morning, where we're told they may be greeted by President Trump. Anna Fifield is the Tokyo bureau chief for The Washington Post and covers the Koreas. Welcome.

ANNA FIFIELD: Hi. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Would you tell us who these three hostages - or let's call them detainees, convicts, whatever the North Koreans would have called them - who they are?

FIFIELD: Right. They're three men. They are all Korean-American. They're all naturalized American citizens. And they had all been living or based in this Chinese border city called Yanji, which is a hopping-off point for going into North Korea. There's a lot of human rights people and business people who work out of Yanji. And these three men had all been working in North Korea and had been visiting frequently. The first one to have been detained - he was held in October of 2015, but he'd been there for two and a half years - was a man who used to live in Fairfax, Va., called Kim Dong-chul. And he was working at a hotel just over the North Korean side of the border. And the other two who were detained just over a year ago are Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song. They were both affiliated with the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, which is a private university run by Korean-Americans in Pyongyang. So they were all regular visitors. All speak Korean and, you know, knew the place relatively well.

INSKEEP: As far as you can tell, was there a circumstance similar to what Jean Lee just described - they had permission to be in the country but you just never know, and one day their luck ran out?

FIFIELD: That's right. I mean, we know very little about these three, even by the standards of what we hear about Americans held in North Korea. They all did have permission to be there. Tony Kim was detained at the airport like Jean Lee just described then. So they were all there legally. Nobody was illegally crossing. But it doesn't take much to run afoul of the North Korean authorities. And things which would be trivial in any other country, you know, if that, could be viewed as very grave crimes in North Korea. And one of the key things there is spreading Christianity. There is no religion allowed in North Korea apart from, you know, the devotion to the Kim family, which is pretty much mandatory. And so anybody who goes in there with Christian ideas or wants to try to spread the ideas is really at great risk of running afoul of the regime.

INSKEEP: Is that something that one of these three - you don't know if these three were doing that?

FIFIELD: We don't know for sure, but the university is a Christian-run university. And the people who have been there in the past have been involved in some kind of Christian activity. So I'm sure we'll hear more about that in the coming days.

INSKEEP: I think I've read about this. Christian missionary types can operate in the country, but they're not supposed to proselytize. Is that what this amounts to?

FIFIELD: That's right. They're allowed to operate as long as they keep their Christianity to themselves. They're not allowed to try and spread it at all. And a previous detainee, Jeffrey Fowle from Ohio, he was detained because he had left a Bible in a restroom in remote North Korea because he was hoping that a North Korean would find it and read it. But that's the kind of thing which is viewed as absolutely sacrilegious to the North Korean regime who want the people to believe that they are God and there's no one else who could claim that title.

INSKEEP: In just a few seconds, what do you know about their condition now that the three have been released?

FIFIELD: Right. So we have heard from President Trump and the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, that they are in relatively good health. They're on a plane right now with a physician who is checking them out. They've landed at Yokota Air Base in Japan, where I am. So they will be going - undergoing medical checks. But they were all able to walk by themselves onto the plane. So they seem to be in, you know, reasonable condition under the circumstances.

INSKEEP: Well, Anna Fifield, thanks very much for helping us. Really appreciate it.

FIFIELD: Sure, great to be here.

INSKEEP: She's Tokyo bureau chief for The Washington Post, talking with us on this day when three American detainees have been released from North Korea. They're heading home on a plane with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.