South Korean pastor Kim Kuk-gi (69) 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 (64, 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.”
South Korean government promises compensation
On 2 November 2023 South Korea’s Unification Ministry published a press release titled “Families of detainees in North Korea to be recognised as victims of abduction and receive consolation money” in which it said that the government of the Republic of Korea would compensate family members of the six citizens detained in DPRK (North Korea). The ministry stated, “We hope that this will provide comfort and assistance to the families of detainees in North Korea”, while conceding that the government’s efforts “toward the families of the victims to relieve their pain and provide protection may not have been sufficient”.
Referring to the six detainees, who include “missionaries” Kim Kuk-gi, Choi Chun-gil and Kim Jong Uk, all three charged with spying by the DPRK, the press release stated, “The North has sentenced our people to severe punishments and refused to provide even minimal information on confirming the life or death of those who had helped the under-privileged in North Korea… The Ministry of Unification took another substantial step by recognising the families of detainees in North Korea as victims of abduction, and conducted consultations and legal reviews with the relevant ministries to provide consolation money. On November 2, the Deliberative Committee on Compensation and Assistance to Victims of Abduction by North Korea held a meeting during which it decided to provide consolation money to victims, in accordance with Article 6 of the Act on Compensation and Assistance to Victims of Abduction by North Korea after Conclusion of the Military Armistice Agreement.”
Eric Foley, CEO of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, told NK News that while the compensation will do little to quell the concerns of the families, as they are only focused on the return of their loved ones, the compensation does reflect a renewed commitment to securing the detainees’ return and “can be received as a welcome sign”.
The amount of compensation, which ranges from 15 million to 20 million Korean won (€10,500 to €14,000) per family, is calculated by multiplying the monthly minimum wage by the period of abduction, with a ceiling of 36 times the monthly minimum wage at the time of the payment decision.
Kim Kuk-gi is married to Kim Hee Soon. They do not have children.
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.
2 February 2023 The families of South Korean detainees in North Korea met the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Elizabeth Salmon, and family members of Kim Kuk-gi and Kim Jong Uk urged the UN to step up efforts for their repatriation. Kim Jong Uk’s elder brother Kim Jeong-sam said he gave a letter to the Rapporteur in which he pleaded for repatriation this year on the 70th anniversary of the armistice that halted the 1950-53 Korean War. He said she vowed to put her utmost efforts into bringing back the abductees.
2 November 2023 South Korea’s Unification Ministry issued a press release stating that families of detainees in North Korea including Kim Kuk-gi and Kim Jong Uk would receive compensation payments in recognition of their status as victims of abduction.
(CNN, Hankyoreh, NK News, Release International, Voice of the Martyrs Korea, World Watch Monitor, Yonhap News Agency)
Photo: Internationale Gesellschaft für Menschenrechte