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Americans Who Entered North Korea: A Historical Perspective

by Madison Thomas
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Americans in North Korea

The situation involving Private 2nd Class Travis King, a U.S. soldier who crossed into North Korea at a border village, has drawn attention amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. and U.S.-led United Nations Command are actively working to resolve the matter.

Over the years, there have been instances of other Americans crossing into North Korea, including a few U.S. soldiers. Some were driven by evangelical fervor, while others were captivated by the enigmatic allure of a reclusive police state fueled by anti-U.S. sentiment.

Here are accounts of several Americans who ventured into North Korea in the past:

Charles Jenkins

Charles Jenkins, originally from Rich Square, N.C., deserted his post as an Army sergeant in 1965 during the Cold War era and fled across the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea. Regarded as a propaganda asset, North Korea featured Jenkins in leaflets and films. In 1980, he married Hitomi Soga, a Japanese nursing student who had been abducted by North Korean agents in 1978. Jenkins was permitted to leave North Korea in 2004 to reunite with his wife in Japan, where he turned himself in to U.S. military authorities. He faced charges of desertion and defection to North Korea, resulting in a dishonorable discharge and a 25-day sentence in a U.S. military jail in Japan. Jenkins passed away in Japan in 2017.

Bruce Byron Lowrance

Bruce Byron Lowrance’s case highlights how North Korea’s treatment of American detainees is influenced by its relations with Washington. In 2018, amid a period of favorable diplomacy between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Lowrance illegally entered North Korea through China in October. However, just a month later, North Korea swiftly expelled Lowrance, deviating from its usual prolonged detention of foreigners. This expedited release was likely intended to foster a positive atmosphere for dialogue with the United States. Prior to this, three other American detainees were released in conjunction with the Trump-Kim summit in June 2018. However, subsequent negotiations faltered, leading to a breakdown in diplomacy after the second Trump-Kim summit in February 2019.

Matthew Miller

Matthew Miller, a 24-year-old from Bakersfield, California, was sentenced to six years of hard labor in North Korea in September 2014. The Supreme Court of North Korea claimed that Miller tore up his tourist visa upon arrival in Pyongyang, expressing a desire to experience the country’s prison life and secretly investigate its human rights conditions. North Korea announced his detainment while then-President Barack Obama was visiting South Korea on a state visit. Miller was eventually freed in November 2014 alongside Kenneth Bae, an American missionary and tour leader.

Kenneth Bae

Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae was arrested in November 2012 while leading a tour group in a special economic zone of North Korea. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “hostile acts,” which included smuggling inflammatory literature and attempting to establish an anti-government base at a hotel in a border town. Bae’s family stated that he suffered from chronic health issues. He returned to the United States in November 2014 following a secret mission by James Clapper, then-U.S. Director of National Intelligence, who also secured the release of Matthew Miller.

Jeffrey Fowle

In 2014, Jeffrey Fowle, an Ohio municipal worker, was released after being detained for six months in North Korea. Fowle had left a Bible in a nightclub in the city of Chongjin, leading to his detention. His release followed negotiations involving retired diplomat and former Ohio Congressman Tony Hall. The distribution of Bibles and secret religious activities are considered serious offenses in North Korea, often resulting in imprisonment or execution.

Otto Warmbier

Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, tragically died shortly after being flown home in a coma in June 2017. He had spent 17 months in North Korean captivity after being seized by authorities during a tour group visit. Warmbier was convicted of attempting to steal a propaganda poster and received a 15-year sentence of hard labor. North Korea denied allegations of torture, claiming to have provided him with medical care. A U.S. federal judge ruled in 2022 that Warmbier’s parents should receive a partial payment of $240,300 seized from a North Korean bank account, as part of the more than $501 million awarded to them in 2018.

These accounts shed light on the experiences of various Americans who ventured into North Korea, underscoring the complex dynamics between the two nations and the challenges faced by those who found themselves caught in the midst of geopolitical tensions.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about North Korea

Q: How many Americans have crossed into North Korea over the years?

A: Several Americans, including soldiers, detainees, and adventurers, have crossed into North Korea at different times.

Q: What were the motivations behind Americans crossing into North Korea?

A: Motivations varied among individuals. Some were driven by evangelical zeal, while others were attracted by the mysterious nature of a cloistered police state fueled by anti-U.S. sentiment.

Q: What happened to Charles Jenkins, the U.S. soldier who fled to North Korea?

A: Charles Jenkins, an Army sergeant, deserted his post in 1965 and fled to North Korea. He was treated as a propaganda asset and married a Japanese nursing student abducted by North Korean agents. He was eventually allowed to leave North Korea in 2004, surrendered to U.S. military authorities, and faced charges of desertion and defection.

Q: What led to the release of Bruce Byron Lowrance, Matthew Miller, and Kenneth Bae?

A: Bruce Byron Lowrance was expelled from North Korea in 2018, potentially influenced by favorable diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea. Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae were released in 2014 after negotiations involving U.S. officials.

Q: What happened to Otto Warmbier, the U.S. student who was held captive in North Korea?

A: Otto Warmbier was seized by North Korean authorities during a tour group visit, convicted of attempting to steal a propaganda poster, and sentenced to hard labor. He was eventually flown home in a coma and tragically died shortly after. North Korea denied allegations of torture.

Q: What were the consequences faced by those who crossed into North Korea?

A: Consequences varied depending on the individual and circumstances. Some faced imprisonment, while others endured hard labor or legal proceedings upon their return.

Q: How does North Korea’s treatment of detainees relate to its relations with the United States?

A: North Korea’s handling of American detainees is influenced by the state of its relations with Washington. Diplomatic atmospheres and negotiations can sometimes lead to expedited releases or favorable treatment.

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