A man claiming to be a naturalized American who spied on behalf of “South Korean conservative elements” is being held by North Korea and is seeking U.S. or South Korean help to obtain his release, CNN reported Monday.
Kim Dong Chul, 62, told the news network he was arrested in October and held for spying for South Korea. Pyongyang officials granted the news network an interview with Kim, who previously had lived in the Washington suburb of Fairfax, Virginia, after guards escorted him into a hotel room in the capital city.
The U.S. Embassy in Seoul said it was aware of the CNN report but did not have further comment. If the CNN report is confirmed, Kim would be the first American to be detained since the North released three U.S. citizens in 2014, and would be the second Western citizen known to be held currently in North Korea.
The other is Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, who was sentenced last month to life at hard labor in a North Korean prison. In a separate CNN interview broadcast Sunday, Lim said he spends eight hours a day, six days a week, digging holes in an apple orchard.
"I wasn't originally a laborer, so the labor was hard at first," Lim said in Korean through an interpreter. "But now I've gotten used to it."
Claims of spying
As for the alleged American, Kim speaks and understands English, but North Korea required that he speak in Korean for the CNN interview at the Pyongyang hotel. An official translator was provided.
Kim told CNN that since 2001 he had lived since 2001 in Yanji, a city near the border with China, and spied on behalf of "South Korean conservative elements." He said, "I was tasked with taking photos of military secrets and scandalous scenes."
Kim said in the interview that a number of South Koreans "asked me to help destroy the [North's] system and spread propaganda against the government."
Kim's claims were made in the presence of North Korean officials, CNN reported, noting it was unable to determine if they were made under duress.
The network reported that Kim was being held at a Pyongyang hotel, as is the case with foreigners who have not been formally charged, and was in good health.
The interviews were conducted amid rising tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang, given North Korea's claim to have tested a hydrogen bomb January 6.
Lim, the Canadian man charged with attempting to overthrow the North's government, also told CNN that he is being held in a labor camp with apparently no other prisoners.
Lim was detained early in 2015 while on what his church said was a humanitarian mission to a nursing home and orphanage that he had established in North Korea.
At his sentencing last month, North Korea said he had admitted all charges against him, including "viciously defaming" the North Korean system and its leader, and plotting to overthrow the state.
The South Korean-born Lim, who was 60 when he was arrested, is the head pastor at the 3,000-member Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto, one of Canada's largest churches.
He appeared on North Korean state television in July and confessed to crimes against the state.
"I admit I’ve violated this government's authority, system and order," Lim said in the interview. Asked if his biggest crime was speaking badly of the North's leaders, he said: "Yes, I think so."
Other foreigners who have been detained in North Korea and later released have said they were forced to make similar statements.
In the CNN interview, Lim said he receives three meals a day and regular medical attention; his church has said Lim has "very high blood pressure."
He told the CNN interviewer that he has asked for a Bible, as yet not received, and that he prays every day that North and South Korea become unified.
Canada has protested the "unduly harsh" sentence and complained that consular officials had been denied access to Lim.