Californian Matthew Miller, who was detained in April in North Korea, was sentenced Sunday to six years with labor on charges of entering the country illegally and trying to commit an act of espionage, according to KCNA, the official North Korean news agency.
KCNA said Miller, 24, committed acts hostile to North Korea while entering the country “under the guise of a tourist.” After a brief session, the country’s Supreme Court denied Miller any appeal.
After entering North Korea on April 10, Miller, who is from Bakersfield, opted to not travel with staff from the American company that organized his trip or with other Western tourists but only with North Korean guides. It is less common and more expensive for Western tourists to travel only with guides from the North.
While traveling, Miller reportedly tore up his visa and declared himself “not a tourist.” The court said he intended to “experience prison life so that he could investigate the human rights situation.”
North Korea recently allowed Miller and two other American detainees to be briefly interviewed by CNN, but Miller refused at that time to comment on why he tore up his visa.
Uri Tours, the New Jersey-based company that organized Miller’s trip, said they assisted him in designing a custom tour.
Uri Tours chief executive Andrea Lee said that as a result of Miller’s arrest and detention, the company has instituted new measures to more thoroughly screen passengers before their tours. She said Uri Tours now routinely requests secondary contacts from prospective travelers and reserves the right to contact those references to confirm facts that are in question.
“Although we ask a series of tailored questions on our application form designed to get to know a traveler and his/her interests, it’s not always possible for us to foresee how a tourist may behave during a DPRK tour,” Lee said via email, using the initials for the nation’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
In his awkward interview with CNN, Miller called on the U.S. government to help him and complained that officials in Washington were not doing enough to assist in his case. “I’ve written a letter to my president with no reply,” he said. “For this reason, I am disappointed in my government.”
He said he did not know the details of the charges he faced but said he “prepared to violate the law” of North Korea before arriving in the country and “I was expecting to be detained.”
The United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, but Miller said he had been able to contact his family by phone.
Miller is one of three Americans currently being held in North Korea. Jeffrey Fowle, 56, was detained in May and told CNN he was held after trying to leave a Bible at one stop on his tour and has yet to face trial. Kenneth Bae has been held since 2012 and is serving a 15-year sentence for “hostile acts.” He told CNN he has been transferred back and forth between a labor camp and hospitals.
The U.S. has offered to send an envoy to discuss the cases of the three Americans, but no agreement on such a visit has been reached.
Other Americans imprisoned in North Korea have been released in such a manner in the past. In 2009, former President Bill Clinton traveled to Pyongyang and secured the release of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who had been arrested while filming a documentary on the China-North Korea border.
In 2010, English teacher Aijalon Gomes was freed after Jimmy Carter flew to North Korea.
Both Clinton and Carter traveled to North Korea as private citizens, not as official emissaries of the U.S. government.
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that on Sept. 4, Sydney Seiler, the U.S. representative to the six-party talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, said at a forum in Washington that the U.S. was making efforts to win the release of the three men through contact with North Korea’s diplomatic mission to the United Nations.
Borowiec is a special correspondent.