A U.S. citizen imprisoned in North Korea between 2016 and 2018 this month told NK News he had used his access in the country to collect sensitive information for American and South Korean spy agencies.
Speaking in his first extended interview with an English-language outlet since his release last year, Kim Dong-chul said he began spying in 2009 and had been recruited due to his unique position as a businessman working in the Rason Special Economic Zone (SEZ).
Kim confessed to espionage at a press conference held following his arrest in March 2016, in a statement in which he said he had worked for South Korea’s National Intelligence Agency (NIS) in procuring sensitive information about goings-on in the country.
North Korean media later reported he had been apprehended “perpetrating the state subversive plots and espionage against the DPRK.”
Now free, he told NK News that the confession was largely truthful, and that he had also worked with the U.S.’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to procure “very significant” information on issues of interest to American intelligence.
“I filmed footage with a watch [equipped with a camera] and used electromagnetic wave wiretapping equipment,” he said in an in-depth interview in the South Korean capital earlier in the month, adding that he was asked to work as an “antenna” in the country.
“I became a traitor overnight and was locked up in a forced labor camp. I hit rock bottom.”
Kim Dong-chul was sentenced to ten years’ hard labor in April 2016 | Photo: DPRK Today
Following his arrest in October 2015, Kim told NK News, he was subject to beating and other forms of torture — abuse that forced him to give up names of his local double agents and that has left some of his body paralyzed.
“I was subjected to water torture eight times,” he said. “And I tried a few times to take my own life. But I could not die.”
The position also saw him recruit local double agents across the DPRK, Kim told NK News.
U.S. intelligence, in particular, had asked him to provide detailed information on the North Korean military and nuclear program.
“The CIA detected a suspicious vessel on the Rajin port through satellite imagery… and asked me to take very close-up photos of it and figured out what it was being used for… I delivered that information just before [my arrest],” he said.
Neither the CIA, the U.S. State Department, or the NIS on Monday responded to requests for comment from NK News.
Kim Dong-chul (third from the right) was released from a North Korean prison in May last year | Photo: U.S. Air Force
Sentenced to ten years’ hard labor in April 2016, Kim was sent to a prison camp where he performed grueling farm work and was kept largely isolated from other detainees.
Kim was released by North Korea in last year alongside two other U.S. citizens who had been under detention in the North — Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) lecturers Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song.
The release followed a surprise visit to the North by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and came amid warming U.S.-North Korea relations.
U.S. President Donald Trump has frequently touted the release as a major concession, having as recently as last week cited the case as proof of his good relations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“We got our hostages back. And we have a very, very good relationship, the two of us, and that’s very important,” he said in the wake of a North Korean missile test last week.