[Above photo (l-r): U.S. prisoners Kim Dong-Chul, Kim Sang-Duk and Kim Hack-Song]
Three Americans serving sentences in North Korea’s notoriously inhuman prison system may soon be freed. Two of the men are Christians, including a pastor.
Leading up to the historic meeting between North Korea dictator Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump, Trump hinted at the imminent release of the three men. On Wednesday, May 2, Trump posted on Twitter to “stay tuned!” for news.
Today during the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump said that “some very good announcements” would be coming shortly, but did not specify on what. The three men may be released as a gesture of goodwill in advance of the upcoming meeting between the two world leaders. The White House has been asking for the release of the three men since they were detained.
However, on Thursday the U.S. State Department said that it cannot confirm reports the prisoners will be released. A state department spokeswoman said the U.S. was “working to see U.S. citizens who are detained in North Korea come home as soon as possible.” CNN reported that a U.S. official said the administration is “confident” the Americans held in North Korea will be released but says they are still working to verify reports the prisoners have been moved from their labor camps to Pyongyang. According to CNN, the prisoners’ families had received no new information about their loved ones. The Americans’ conditions are also unknown, the official said.
About the Three Men
The three men—Kim Dong-Chul; Tony Kim, also known as Kim Sang-Duk and Kim Hak-Song, also known as Jin Xue Song—were arrested on a variety of supposed crimes against the state. They all faced years behind bars, enduring conditions that have been described by an Auschwitz survivor as “as bad–or even worse–than those in Nazi concentration camps.”
We have little information about the three men and their lives before their imprisonment in the country that for 17 straight years been #1 on the World Watch List, ranked as the most dangerous place for Christians. Here’s what we know…
Born in South Korea, Kim Dong-Chul is a U.S. citizen and pastor in his early 60s. He was arrested In October 2015 and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor on charges of spying. A month before his trial, he supposedly apologized for trying to steal military secrets for South Koreans. He had been living in the country’s northeast region near the border zone in a special economic zone where he ran a trading and hotel services company.He told CNN he had left a wife and two daughters behind in China, but had had no contact with them since his detention.
Kim Sang-Duk/Tony Kim
Two weeks before Kim Hak-song was arrested, Kim Sang-duk, also known as Tony Kim, was detained on espionage charges. After spending a month working at PUST, he was trying to leave the country. According to South Korean media, he was 55 when he was arrested and had been involved in humanitarian work in North Korea. He had been involved with some other activities outside PUST, such as helping an orphanage. Kim studied accounting at two American universities and had worked as an accountant in the U.S. for more than a decade.
Kim Hak-song previously described himself as a Christian missionary who intended to start an experimental farm at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) where he worked. He was reportedly born just across the North Korean border in China and emigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s. He is said to have studied agriculture in an area bordering North Korea before moving to Pyongyang. On May 6, 2017, he was reportedly detained while in Pyongyang Station on suspicion of “hostile acts.” PUST was founded in 2010 by a Korean-American Christian entrepreneur, with much of the costs funded by U.S. and South Korea Christian charities.
The Inhumane Conditions in North Korea’s Prisons
It’s estimated that 80,000 to 130,000 political prisoners are being held in North Korea’s prison camps where prisoners are severely abused and mistreated. A 2017 report shared by the IBA (International Bar Association) War Committee described chilling details about the state of North Korea’s prison camps and the hostility toward Christian prisoners.
According to the report, inside the camps, prisoners are often “tortured and killed on account of their religious affiliation, with officials instructed ‘to wipe out the seed of [Christian] reactionaries.’ In one heinous account, guards killed a prisoner’s newborn baby by feeding it to the guard dogs.
Accounts and stories of ex-prisoners in North Korea are sobering reminders of the darkness and brutality. Another American prisoner, Otto Warmbier, was a student from Cincinnati who died only days after being medically evacuated from a North Korean prison, where he was detained for 18 months and brutally mistreated. Kenneth Bae, a missionary imprisoned in a camp and later released, described working long hours manually tilling rocky soil in a field. Bae would routinely lose dozens of pounds, be sent to hospitals to recover, and then be sent back to the camps.
Praying for the safe return of these three Americans to their families should also drive us to pray for our brothers and sisters imprisoned in North Korea who each day endure these kinds of horrific injustices for their faith. Many haven’t seen their families in years, sometimes decades. And we can also pray for our brothers and sisters who every day face the threat of arrest and imprisonment if their faith is discovered.
Father, we thank you for this good news as we anticipate the release of Kim Dong-Chul, Kim Hak-Song and Kim Sang-Duk. We ask for a safe return to their homes and loved ones. And God, we pray also for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are inside these camps. We ask that you would give them the courage and power they need to stay strong and faithful to You in the midst of unimaginable conditions. Please strike the hearts of North Korean leaders—that we would see vast change in the nation’s treatment of its people and others outside its borders. We pray that as North Korea and South Korea work together, that we would see Your Kingdom expand on the Korean peninsula like never before in history.