North Korea claims it is holding a naturalized U.S. citizen on suspicion of spying for South Korea, CNN reported Monday.
If confirmed, the man would be one of several Americans detained in recent years by the reclusive communist state. The State Department declined to comment on the report, explaining in an email that “speaking publicly about specific purported cases of detained Americans can complicate our tireless efforts to secure their freedom.”
The news comes at a time of heightened tension on the Korean peninsula and appeared designed to put pressure on the United States and its allies, which are seeking to increase international sanctions on the government of Kim Jong Un over its claims to have carried out its fourth nuclear test last week.
North Korean authorities allowed a CNN reporter to interview the purported American detainee, identified as Kim Dong-chul, 62, at a hotel in the capital, Pyongyang. Officials insisted that the conversation take place in Korean, through an official interpreter, but the network said it later verified the translation.
Kim told the network that he had lived in Fairfax, Va., but moved in 2001 to the Chinese city of Yanji, near North Korea. From there, he said he would commute daily to a special economic zone in the North Korean city of Rason, where he established a company dealing in international trade and hotel services.
Kim said he started spying in 2013 on behalf of “South Korean conservative elements” who “injected me with a hatred toward North Korea.” Asked to describe how that worked, he said he bribed a local resident to collect sensitive information about the country’s military and nuclear program, and then smuggled it in his car to China or South Korea.
Kim said he was arrested in October while meeting a former North Korean soldier to collect a USB memory stick and a camera used to gather military secrets. The former soldier was also detained, he said, but Kim did not know his fate.
“I’m asking the U.S. or South Korean government to rescue me,” he told CNN.
The network said it was shown what appeared to be an American passport issued in Kim's name and published a photograph of the document.
Kim told CNN that he has a wife and two daughters in China. But attempts to reach them using a phone number he provided were unsuccessful, the network said.
The last two Americans known to have been detained in North Korea were released in November 2014 after the Obama administration sent the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, on a secret mission to the country.
Matthew Todd Miller, a Californian from Bakersfield, was arrested in April that year and sentenced to six years of hard labor on charges of entering the country illegally and trying to commit an act of espionage.
Kenneth Bae, an evangelist from Lynnwood, Wash., had been in custody since 2012 and was serving 15 years with hard labor for “hostile acts against the state.”
CNN was also given access to a South Korean-born Canadian pastor, the Rev. Lim Hyeon-soo, who was sentenced in December to life in prison with hard labor on charges of using religion to try to destroy the North Korean system of government.
“I used to think they deified their leaders too much, but as I read the memoirs of both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, they never called themselves gods,” Lim told CNN on Saturday.
Family members and colleagues have said that Lim traveled frequently to North Korea, where he supported a nursing home, nursery and orphanage. But they said the trips did not have a political objective.
Lim told CNN that he was being held at a labor camp, where he works alone eight hours a day, six days a week, digging holes to plant apple trees.
“I wasn't originally a laborer, so the labor was hard at first,” Lim said. “But now I've gotten used to it.”
Asked whether he needed anything, Lim said he had requested a bible, which had not been provided.
“I hope I can go home someday,” Lim said. “Nobody knows if I will ever go home, but that is my hope. I miss my family. I am longing to see them again, and my congregation.”
CNN did not specify when the interview with Kim took place but said both men appeared healthy. Kim told CNN that he was being held at a hotel, which the network said was the norm for foreign detainees who have not yet been charged.
North Korea claimed Wednesday that it had tested a hydrogen bomb, a thermonuclear device far more powerful than any of the three atomic bombs it has tested in the past. The White House and Western nuclear weapons experts are skeptical of the claim, but U.S. officials have said that any nuclear test by Pyongyang is a violation of the country’s international obligations.
The U.S. military sent a B-52 bomber on a low-level flight over South Korea this weekend as a show of force in support of its allies in the region. South Korea has resumed cross-border propaganda broadcasts, which the North considers tantamount to an act of war.
Kim defended last week's explosion as “a self-defensive step” meant to protect the Korean peninsula “from the danger of nuclear war caused by the U.S.-led imperialists,” according to a report Sunday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
For more international news, follow @alexzavis on Twitter.