[Newsmaker] Little is known about six South Koreans imprisoned in North

By Yeo Jun-suk
  • Published : Jun 20, 2017 - 17:01
  • Updated : Jun 21, 2017 - 17:39
Before the tragic story of the American traveler to North Korea, Otto Warmbier, made headlines, not many in South Korea knew that several of their compatriots also face the same ordeal in the communist state.

It was only last week that the South’s intelligence agency revealed that six South Koreans are currently detained in the North -- three pastors for engaging in religious activities and three for defecting from the North.

Despite increased public attention on their safety, following Warmbier’s comatose return home last week and death on Monday, as of Tuesday, very little is known about the six South Korean prisoners.

Kim Kook-ki (left) and Choi Chun-gil are believed to be detained in North Korea. (Yonhap)

Officials in Seoul have struggled to figure out exactly where the detainees are located and how they are being treated, as North Korea rejects any request for dialogue on the matter, amid strained inter-Korean ties. 

“If we restore dialogue with the North, the first thing we should do is to make sure of the safety of our people detained in the North,” an official from the Unification Ministry in Seoul said under the condition of anonymity on Tuesday. The inter-Korean dialogue channel was cut off early last year.

Among the three detained pastors, the longest-serving is Kim Jong-wook, a missionary sentenced to hard labor for life in 2014 for allegedly spying and trying to set up underground churches. The other two -- Kim Kook-ki and Choi Chun-gil -- were also missionaries sentenced to life in prison in 2015 for espionage charges.

Besides the six South Korean detainees, North Korea has also detained three Korean-Americans and one Korean-Canadian, according to the NIS. Among them are Kim Dong-chul, a naturalized US citizen born in South Korea, who was sentenced to hard labor for 10 years in 2016 after he admitted to “stealing” North Korean secrets during a press conference in Pyongyang.

The government has tried to use international organizations to reach out to the detainees, but to no avail, the official said. The ministry made such requests to the International Committee of the Red Cross and UN committee on Enforced Disappearance.

Pastor Kim Kook-ki was in bad condition with diabetes and high blood pressure when he was detained by the North in 2014, according to Lee Han-byeol, a director of Improving North Korean Human Rights Center, a Seoul-based human right civic group. Kim‘s current health status is yet to be verified, the ministry official said Tuesday.

The three pastors -- who had engaged in religious activities in a city near the border between North Korea and China -- were accused of working with the South Korean spy agency to overthrow the Kim Jong-un regime.

“Working under the instruction of the US government and its puppet spy agencies, they are frantic terrorists trying to overthrow our supreme leadership with dubious assassination attempts,” said the North Korean government at a press conference in 2015, where the pastors showed up before the reporters.

Earlier this month, Peter Jung, the president of North Korea Justice Solidarity, held a press conference to call for the government’s swift action to bring back the detainees, denouncing North Korea for “prosecuting religion.”

By Yeo Jun-suk (