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Detention of American Christian in North Korea ‘concerning’ — White House

Kim Hak-song and his wife, Kim Mi-ok. Screenshot from video

(RNS) North Korea has detained a U.S. citizen — a self-described Christian missionary — raising the number of Americans held there to four.

Kim Hak-song, who was taken into custody Saturday (May 6), taught at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. The university, founded in 2010 with donations from South Korean and American Christians, including the Illinois-based Church of the Brethren, remains the only private university in the country.

“Obviously, this is concerning. We’re well aware of it and we’re going to work through the embassy of Sweden … through our State Department, to seek the release of the individuals there,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters Monday.

Song was detained on suspicion of “hostile acts” against the state, the North’s KCNA news agency said.

One other of the four Americans detained, Kim Sang-duk, also taught at PUST.

Experts on North Korea consider the detentions an attempt by the authoritarian North Korean regime to gain bargaining chips as it resists U.S. pressure to rein in its nuclear program, with which it has threatened South Korea and the U.S.

(Reuters contributed to this report)

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)

22 Comments

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  • “North Korea has detained a U.S. citizen — a self-described Christian missionary ”

    If he wanted to be a christian martyr so badly, we do not need to expend resources to get him back. There are only a few legitimate excuses for Americans to go to NK:
    1. They are of Korean descent and visiting relatives there as part of what remains of “The Sunshine Policy”
    2. They are of Japanese descent and visiting relatives who were abducted by NK from 1960-80’s
    3. They are historians looking to interview the handful of Americans who defected to NK to avoid court martial for collaborating with Communist POW guards
    4. They are a US president buying overpriced U-235 and PU to keep it out of Nork hands.

  • I don’t see the logic in Americans purposely going to nations like NK or Iran, that the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with. If an American travels to these type nations, then they should know before hand that the U.S. will not be able to free you if you are detained. It’s heartbreaking for their families.

  • Trump should announce that he considers the seizure of US citizens and the ongoing nuclear testing to be a resumption of hostilities, and that if those seized aren’t released and the nuclear program shut down he will declare a total economic blockade — nothing goes into North Korea, and nothing comes out.

  • It could not be done since there is a significant border between N. Korea and China. China will not impose significant sanctions. Further, we have a president whose family and in-laws depend on China for their family owned businesses. Therefore our ability to use leverage over China is seriously compromised.

  • As I understand it, the China-Korea border is pretty mountainous and includes a number of important bridges. We couldn’t stop smuggling, but I think the Air Force could stop major economic exchanges by land.

  • How do you blockade a country which doesn’t trade with you or your allies anyway? NK borders Russia and China. Neither particularly care about Nork antics, or our concerns. Plus China and Russia rely on Nork cheap labor and already have Trump in their pocket. Plus total economic collapse has happened enough times in NK, that it is hardly the motivator you think it is.

    The NK tests are an effort to extort cash from SK and Japan. It works because even a highly likely NK nuclear accident threatens SK and Western Japan. Belligerence short of outright war only helps NK. A real war would end them, but leave SK a mess. At this point the sanest strategy has been the most annoying. We buy off North Korean nuclear material at ridiculous prices to take it off their hands. Less they have means less which can end up in a radioactive cloud blowing from Seoul to Kyushu.

  • Not without attacking both China and Russia. Plus NKs biggest export has been cheap labor. Their biggest revenue source is illicit drug manufacturing and gun smuggling. Stuff there neighbors are already trying to intercept.

  • Sure, we can do it without attacking China and Russia — Russia has a single crossing in the short NK border, and train trestle crossing the Tumen River. We take down the bridge on the NK side of the river, no more land transfer of any major economic importance and serious cost in wealth and time to rebuild. China has more crossings, but again bridges over rivers. Beyond that, the terrain is mountainous all along the borders and mountain roads are more vulnerable to damage than elsewhere. (As someone that drives through a mountain gorge monthly visiting family, I know how vulnerable such roads are, and NK’s roads are almost certainly more poorly maintained.)

    Beyond that, I doubt it would reach the point of needing to declare the blockade if we can convince China that this time we’re serious. And just what will NK do? They must know that while they can do a great deal of damage to SK, if it comes down to a real shooting war they lose. Especially if we don’t make overthrowing the regime a victory condition.

    And since we are still officially at war with NK, President Trump doesn’t need authorization from Congress.

  • “Russia has a single crossing in the short NK border, and train trestle crossing the Tumen River. We take down the bridge on the NK side of the river, no more land transfer of any major economic importance and serious cost in wealth and time to rebuild. ”

    “China has more crossings, but again bridges over rivers.”

    And would be considered a hostile acts against Russia and China. More importantly, why are you so hell bent on turning Seoul into a pile of rubble? It is easily within long range artillery and crap old soviet surface to surface missile range.

    North Korea is a country of 25 million people with the GNP of North Dakota. Economic disaster is the norm there. You literally can’t bring them to their knees by economic methods. They are already there.

  • Not for the ruling class, they’re doing just fine. But that “just fine” is dependent on the currency brought in by trade. Shut that off, and they’ll feel the bite.

    Nor am I “hell bent on turning Seoul into a pile of rubble,” I simply believe that neither NK nor China have any reason to change unless we stop rewarding bad behavior. And NK’s initial reaction to us no longer playing the generations-old game of danegeld is to ramp it up even more — like kidnapping more hostages — to force us back into the familiar rut. And that we actually have a big stick we can threaten to use short of all-out war, that we won’t actually have to use if we can convince China and NK that this time we’re serious. And that thanks to the ongoing official state of war, Trump as commander-in-chief doesn’t have the constitutional limitations he chose to ignore in Syria.

  • As I stated earlier, a chief revenue source is also illegal smuggling of guns and drugs to neighbors. We aren’t going to effectively stop that either. This is a country willing to lapse into horrific famine and still maintain its absolute dictatorship. Reasonable actions and concerns do not exist there.

    ” I simply believe that neither NK nor China have any reason to change unless we stop rewarding bad behavior. ”

    Dealing with their bad behavior has been the norm for 64 years. Its kept things from becoming outright war. Something nobody, not even the Norks are in the mood for. They know a war would end their regime once and for all. So they always fall short of actions which would spark one. This is a big game.

    Plus we and the rest of the world value South Korea and its economy far more than the pinprick annoyance of the Kims. Outright war with NK will mean massive destruction to Seoul. Nothing short of outright war will be of any value against NK. Attacks like you suggest would only strengthen the regime and give them a tangible enemy to rally against. Meaning we will never really be serious about dealing with them. Its blackmail, but its also the unavoidable peril of geography of the region.

  • The status quo currently includes a NK with a nuclear program that kidnaps our citizens whenever it wants a little extra bargaining power. You may consider that acceptable, I do not. To riff off of Kipling’s “The Dykes,” if we don’t repair those sea walls our children will eventually drown.

    So what do you suggest we do to prevent NK from becoming a true nuclear power and stopping it from kidnapping our citizens whenever it’s convenient?

  • I would worry less about what NK does with nuclear power and weapons on purpose and focus on what appears to be an inevitable nuclear accident coming from there. NK’s likely targets for mayhem are already under the US nuclear umbrella. We will end them if anything resembling an actual attack happens. They know that and fall short of such actions. Extortion being more a course of action than war.

    The real worry is that Youngbyon nuclear power plant makes Chernobyl look like a paragon of safety. The usual resort to nuclear blackmail here serves a purpose to us as well. Buying off fissile material keeps it out of their hands. It takes months to years to produce the stuff with their resources.

    As for abductions, SK and Japan have been dealing with the issue for decades. Let them take the lead on the issue and back them up. It’s their citizens. Let them chart the course of action here.

    It’s not as exciting or satisfying as military aggression, but it is the best of a bad situation. NK is not a threat, it’s a pest.

  • If they’ll stop short of war, then we can push them back to the line our last few presidents gave up. So your concerns about war would be groundless if we make it clear that we will not accept their current pehavior, right?

  • So we are going to endanger our allies for the sake of useless sabre rattling.

    Short of actual war, NK has no reason to take our objections to their behavior seriously. They know that. It’s why the status quo has been so for the last 12 presidents.

    Besides my in-laws are right in the medium range of NK missiles in Western Japan. They already lived through the experience of fleeing bombs from the sky as kids. No need to repeat it in their retirement years. I would also not like to have artillery shells falling on my wife’s best friends hometown. Especially for the sake of diplomatic posturing. So I am taking this personally. 🙂

  • Ask the families of those that have been kidnapped if it’s “saber rattling.” And again, your insistence that it’s useless makes no sense since you’ve already said the thugs running NK won’t push it to to a full-blown war. So warn them what’s coming. If they refuse to amend their ways, declare the blockade. If they still refuse, take down the least important bridge and ask them if they want to make it two. If they still refuse, take down the next and ask them if they want to make it three. And ask them if they really want to go to war over it. As you’ve said, they really don’t want war, and are counting on us backing down.

    If North Korea becoming a true nuclear power is really unacceptable, then we have to act like it.

  • I have been following the abduction story for years. NHK makes a big deal of it every time North Korea makes the news in Japan. They want their citizens back, but it gets messy from there.

    Aside from a South Korean film director, the abductions were largely done by The Big Kim. Kim Il Sung until the late 70’s. Most surviving abductees are middle aged or older. Most have families in NK by now. This is far more of a redress the past issue than a current one.

    North Korea already is a nuclear power. Too late for that. Now it’s a matter of containment and mitigation. Plus they have vast deposits of uranium. The only limiting factor is there ability to turn it into fissile material.An expensive and time consuming process for all but developed nations. Attack those resources and you could be spewing radioactive clouds over South Korea, Manchuria and Western Japan.

    A blockade is an act of war. Destroying infrastructure is also an act of war. Which means it commits ourself to an outright conflict which will be damaging to allies in a way you are avoiding consideration. You blow up a bridge on the Chinese border, artillery shells will fall on densely populated Seoul in reprisal.

    Long and the short of it is, cool your jets. We shouldn’t be endangering valuable allies for the purposes of d1ck measuring. This problem is an old one without easy solution. It’s best to act in a way to cause the least harm to everyone.

  • Why would an American citizen travel to North Korea and then try to spread Christian dogma when they know it is forbidden, then expect the US government to rescue them?
    Teaching rice growing makes sense but spreading an unwelcomed religion makes no sense.

  • Anyone who wants to be a Christian Martyr should be left in Korea to fulfill the martyr’s aspirations.

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