On May 6th, an American academic at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology was detained by North Korean officials for unspecified “acts of hostility,” according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). According to CNN, the KCNA released a statement in which they referred to Kim Has Song (the man detained) as “a man who was doing business in relation to the operation of the University of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology,” and while they specified that they were in the process of carrying out a detailed investigation the agency has refused to give further details on the basis of their security concerns. A report by The Guardian notes that Pyongyang University of Science and Technology is unique within North Korea for its acceptance of foreign staff and private funding.
Kim Hak Song is among four US citizens currently detained within North Korean borders. In April, Tony Kim (or Kim Sang Duk), an accounting instructor at the same university was taken into custody for “acts of hostility aimed at overthrowing the country”, and in 2016 22-year-old University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for removing a political sign from his accommodation in Pyongyang. Lastly, a company president by the name of Kim Dong Chul is currently serving a 10-year sentence (which began with his arrest in 2015) for charges of espionage. The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang works as the United States’ protecting power in Pyongyang, and works towards the release or fair treatment of citizens such as these.
North Korea has been accused of arresting US citizens to emphasize political points of conflict in their increasingly fractious relationship with their mother country, and possibly to gain concessions. A key point of concern between the two countries has been North Korea’s continual and unveiled move to develop nuclear weapons and the intercontinental ballistic missiles necessary to use them against Western combatants. The mother of Warmbier, Cindy Warmbier, was quoted by Fox News expressing hope for her son’s release under the new US administration, saying “You are doing a great job… thank you for putting attention on something that needs to be addressed.” However, it is unclear that any positive outcome will be achieved for these detainees in the immediate future. Indeed, Trump’s stance on North Korea is one which is ostensibly much more focused on nuclear proliferation (or the desired absence of it) and power struggle than on humanitarian concerns, and while the freedom of these four US citizens may be a point of pride for the new government there is also a strong possibility of their stories being lost amid the nuclear noise.