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North Korea deporting U.S. aid worker accused of spreading propaganda

North Korea says it is deporting a U.S. woman -- Sandra Suh, founder of L.A.-based humanitarian org

North Korea said Wednesday that it would deport an American woman, Sandra Suh, after determining she had “engaged in plot-breeding and propaganda” against the country during frequent visits over 20 years “under the pretense of humanitarianism.” 

North Korea’s official news agency said Suh had committed the offenses “under the pretext of ‘grant-in-aid’” during her travels to the country since 1998.

Suh is the founder of the Los Angeles-based humanitarian organization Wheat Mission Ministries.

Her daughter-in-law told the Los Angeles Times in a brief phone call that her family was thankful that it appeared Suh would be released, but declined to give details on Suh's visits to North Korea out of concern about jeopardizing her return.

Eun-sook Suh said Sandra Suh was originally from the Pyongyang area and fled south during the Korean War. She initially returned to North Korea with the hope of finding long-lost family members.

"We're just thankful that God seems to be helping her return," she said.

Wheat Mission Ministries did not immediately return a request seeking comment, but its website states it was founded by Sandra Suh in 1989 “in response to the needs of the children and families of North Korea” and was formally established as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 2005. Suh, however, is not listed as a current staff member.

The Korean Central News Agency did not say when Suh was detained, nor was it clear whether she had already been deported. The agency said Suh had engaged in anti-North Korean “propaganda abroad with photos and videos” that she “secretly produced and directed, out of inveterate repugnancy” toward the secretive nation.

According to the group’s website, Wheat Mission sends medicine, medical equipment, food, building materials, clothes, shoes and blankets to North Korea. The organization is also involved in teaching North Korean healthcare professionals and building schools and orphanages. It says it is inspired "to share the love and humility of Christ."

North Korea has detained and then released a number of Westerners in recent years who were missionaries or devout Christians, including Korean American missionary Kenneth Bae and Jeffrey Fowle, an Ohio man who traveled to North Korea on a tourist visa and intentionally left a Bible in a hotel room.

The country director of a German aid group, Welthungerhilfe, or World Hunger Aid, was recently expelled. The group said Pyongyang had asked the worker, Regina Feindt, to leave the country in February without saying why. Welthungerhilfe has worked in North Korea since 1997, spending tens of millions of dollars on projects to improve food, sanitation and water supply.

In late March, North Korean authorities held a highly unusual press conference during which they said they were holding two South Koreans who had spied on the North from the Chinese border city of Dandong, including via “underground churches.”

Stephan Haggard, a professor at UC San Diego and the author of “Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform,” noted in a recent blog post that Pyongyang has a pattern of expelling foreigners when the economy picks up because “it does not have the same need for support and may even see it as meddling and conspiring.”

The expulsions and the March press conference, he wrote, indicate “an extraordinary level of paranoia about foreign intervention in the country, with spies lurking around every corner.”

The “Pictures and Videos” section of Wheat Mission's website notes that the group is “going through a revision process” to post photos and videos to the site. “Because of the sensitive nature of providing videos,” the group said, it is “careful to post videos that are neutral in their content. This will be available soon.”

Photos on the group’s Facebook page show several pictures of what appear to be hospitals, kitchens and orphanages. The organization’s website says it has projects in the cities of Pyongyang, Sariwon, Chongjin and Rason, including orphanage support, noodle and bread factories, and medical missions. It added that it planned a new project in the northern city of Hoeryong.

“Although it is difficult, WM is fiercely committed and dedicated to evaluation and monitoring,” the group says on its website. “Staff of WM conduct monitoring visits to [North Korea] four times a year to ensure that our goods reach intended recipients as best as possible.”

The North Korean news agency said Suh had “admitted her acts … seriously insulted the absolute trust” North Koreans place in their leader, Kim Jong Un, and constituted “indelible crimes that infringed on its sovereignty in violation of its law.” It added that she had “apologized for her crimes and earnestly begged for pardon” and that authorities decided to expel her “taking into full consideration her old age.”

Times staff writer Victoria Kim in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


10:18 a.m.: This article has been updated with comments from Suh's daughter-in-law, background on expulsions of aid groups.

This article was originally posted at 8:17 a.m.