I was interviewed for a story in TIME magazine [full citation: Charlie Campbell, “The Detention of a U.S. Student in North Korea Underscores the Risks of Travelling There,” TIME Asia, 25 January 2016]. The following is my full comment:
While the post-detention treatment of such individuals is always political and used for domestic and international propaganda effect by the regime, the arrests themselves are usually triggered by behavior that the North Korean authorities can classify as illegal. In the past years this behavior has included walking over the Chinese-North Korean border into the DPRK without an entrance visa (Laura Ling and Euna Lee), drunken swimming across the Yalu River into North Korea (Evan Hunziker), walking across the Tumen River in a snowstorm of evangelical ecstasy (Robert Park), tearing up one’s North Korean visa while in North Korea and demanding arrest (Matthew Miller), leaving a Bible in a public toilet (Jeffrey Fowle), and US Korean War vets attempting to contact previous underground anti-North Korean fighters in Hwanghae province (Merrill Newman). In all of these cases there was a clear trigger for the arrest, but of course the North Korean authorities then transformed most of them them more or less into what we would commonly recognize as hostages. Thus Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Bill Richardson in Pyongyang at various times.
To my knowledge no American since the 1980s been arrested in North Korea only for disrespecting the leader (for instance, making an unceremonious pose at a Kim Il Sung statue) or for taking a photograph of a banned installation (in which case the person would be asked to delete the picture and given a stern lecture).
I think that this is an important distinction: Although we may wish that North Korean laws were different, or point justifiably at the arbitrary nature of the North Korean legal system (such as it is), these are not absolutely random arrests.
A different category altogether has to do with Korean-Americans or South Koreans with American residency involved in missionary and aid work that spans the Chinese-North Korean border. There have been cases of North Korean agents actively seeking them out in China, and I believe that Chinese public security is very much involved or complicit in these cases. This includes Kenneth Bae, but the present case seems to be very much in the first category I’ve outlined above.
Also, the nuclear test (6 January) would not be the spur for this arrest, which occurred on 2 January — unless you assume an extreme degree of coordination and planning on the part of the North Korean public security apparatus and the military-diplomatic efforts of the state. More likely is that public security makes the arrest, and then the propagandists figure out how to make hay from it. Obviously this was not announced for a full two weeks after the nuclear test, and the United States government is not going to upend decades of policy toward North Korea to exchange its assent to nuclear development in return for an undergraduate student.
Image: Matthew Miller in Pyongyang, via CNN.