On May 31st,
the North Korean media reported that a South Korean missionary has been
sentenced to life with hard labor for alleged espionage, anti-government
agitation, and setting up an underground religious institution. Sentencing Kim
Jung Wook in this way, more than eight months after his arrest, suggests that Pyongyang is seeking out new ways to pressure surrounding countries while generating systemic solidarity at home.
Kim’s sentence means that he is set to work the rest of his life in mining or a similar sector of the North Korean economy. This type of severe punishment,
while not particularly rare for North Koreans, is very uncommon for a foreign national.
American-Korean Kenneth Bae and two American journalists were sentenced to 15
years and 12 years in 2012 and 2009 respectively, though the latter two were then released upon the visit of former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
The motivation for the North Korean action at this time appears twofold. First, Pyongyang is seeking to enhance its future bargaining power in any future inter-Korean
talks, when the release of Kim could be used as a bargaining chip.
The head of the World Institute For North
Korea Studies, Ahn Chan
Il told Daily NK, “North Korea, which has to ease relations with South Korea in
order to achieve better external relations overall and realize economic gain,
imposed this heavy punishment in order
to demand [the restarting of] Mt. Geumgang tours and the lifting of the May 24th Measures. It is isolated, and is employing varied strategies to
try and find ways to survive.”
In addition, Pyongyang may be seeking to irritate existing divisions between South Korea and Japan. There is a noticeable difference between the Kim case and the North’s decision to reopen an investigation into it’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s. By showing off a willingness to improve relations with Japan while sentencing a Korean national in this way, Pyongyang is laying the groundwork for dividing South Korea and Japan on policy going forward.
Finally, there is a
domestic element to the decision. The Kim Jong Eun regime is finding it hard to consolidate and impose order,
and could have decided to handle the South Korean
missionary issue harshly and publicly in order to maintain unity and reinvigorate the idea of an external
One high-ranking defector agreed, saying that through the sentence Kim is “showing
that he is going to eradicate any element capable of changing the people’s
consciousness and preserve
the South Korean government responded to the case on June 1st, urging
the North to release Kim on humanitarian grounds.
In a statement, the Ministry of Unification
noted, “North Korea has yet to respond in any way to our and the international
community’s multiple reasonable requests for his release and repatriation. It called the sentence and subsequent failure to respond a violation of international law and universal