South Korean pastor Kim Kuk-gi (64) is serving a life sentence in labour camp in North Korea. He was arrested in December 2014 on espionage charges.
On 26 March 2015, North Korea’s state news agency KCNA announced the arrests of Kim Kuk-gi, a Presbyterian pastor and former missionary, and Choe Chun-gil (59, a businessman) for espionage. It is unclear when or where they were arrested, but it is thought to have been in December 2014.
KCNA described the two men as “heinous terrorists” who operated from a base in the Chinese port city of Dandong, near the border with North Korea, and alleged that they were spying for South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) and had brought in large quantities of forged currency. The KCNA stated, “They zealously took part in an anti-DPRK smear campaign.” Kim Kuk-gi was also accused of spreading religious propaganda from an underground church he ran in Dandong.
The NIS said the charge that the two men were working for it was “absolutely groundless”. A spokesman at South Korea’s Unification Ministry, Lim Byeong-cheol, also denied that the men were engaged in espionage.
Following the KCNA’s announcement of the arrests, the Seoul-based General Assembly of Presbyterian Churches in Korea identified Kim Kuk-gi as one of their registered pastors, stating: “Kim Kuk-gi was sent as a missionary… to Dandong in China in 2003, and since then, he has been operating a shelter for refugees, and has been taking care of refugees, Kotjebi (North Korean homeless children) and Korean immigrants living in China.” A representative of the Assembly said that he had bought noodle- and tofu-making machines and sewing machines to send to North Korea.
In May 2015, the North Korean authorities presented Kim Kuk-gi and Choe Chun-gil at a press conference in Pyongyang attended by journalists and foreign diplomats. With government minders present, the two men “confessed” that they had been paid large sums of money over several years to steal state secrets for South Korea.
The following month, South Korean Newspaper Hankyoreh reported a statement by North Korea’s state news broadcaster Korean Central Television (KCTV) on 23 June: “Kim Guk-gi and Choi Chun-gil, spies and agents for the puppet regime who were apprehended while plotting and spying against the Republic under the control of the Americans and their puppet regime in South Korea, were tried in the Supreme Court and sentenced to life in prison.”
On 30 June 2015, the South Korean Unification Ministry also reported that Kim Kuk-gi and Choe Chun-gil had been sentenced to life imprisonment in labour camp.
Analysts believe the verdict was a response to the establishment in Seoul of a UN office for North Korean human rights. Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul said: “Given the timing, it’s safe to assume that North Korea was responding to the establishment of the UN North Korean human rights office.”
December 2014 Kim Kuk-gi and Choe Chun-gil were arrested on charges including spying for South Korea.
26 March 2015 The KCNA announced the men’s arrests, describing them as “heinous terrorists”.
May 2015 At a press conference held by the North Korean authorities in Pyongyang, Kim Kuk-gi and Choe Chun-gil “confessed” that they had been paid to steal state secrets for South Korea.
23 June 2015 North Korea’s state news broadcaster announced that the two men had been tried in the Supreme Court and sentenced to life in prison.
30 June 2015 The South Korean Unification Ministry also reported that the two men had been sentenced to life imprisonment in labour camp.
(CNN, Hankyoreh, Release International, World Watch Monitor)