Is North Korea really holding an American prisoner?

Kim Dong Chul would be the only US citizen in a North Korean prison if his identity is verified, but neither country has confirmed a recent report.

Lee Jin-man/AP
A man reads messages on ribbons hanging on a wire fence wishing for the reunification of the two Koreas at the Imjingak Pavilion near the border village of Panmunjom, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, in Paju, north of Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looked Monday to milk his country's recent nuclear test as a propaganda victory, praising his scientists and vowing more nuclear bombs a day after the U.S. flew a powerful nuclear-capable warplane close to the North in a show of force.

A man claiming he is being held prisoner and facing espionage charges in North Korea has identified himself as a naturalized American citizen.  

In a report that aired Monday, Kim Dong Chul told CNN that he had been spying on behalf of "South Korean conservative elements" to capture military secrets. He was arrested, he says, in October 2015.

If his identity is verified, Mr. Kim would be the only US citizen publicly known to be held prisoner in North Korea.

The interview with the news network took place in the presence of North Korean officials from a hotel in Pyongyang, where Kim is supposedly awaiting trial. In statements given through a North Korean official translator, Kim claimed that individuals in South Korea "injected me with a hatred towards North Korea," and that "they asked me to help destroy the [North Korean] system and spread propaganda against the government."

Kim said he moved in 2001 to Yanji, a Chinese city near the North Korean border that acts as a trade hub between the two countries, and from there he commuted to Rason, an economic zone in North Korea. Prior to moving to Asia, he says he lived in Fairfax, Va.

South Korea's primary intelligence agency, the National Intelligence Service “has no relationship whatsoever” with Kim, a spokesman told The New York Times. A spokeswoman for the Unification Ministry, South Korea's government agency that maintains relations with the North, said the ministry was looking into the report, which also claims Kim was born in South Korea.

South Korea's foreign ministry had no immediate comment on the report, Agence-France Press reports.

Hours after the interview, CNN said it acquired what North Korea claims is a copy of Kim’s American passport, showing he became a naturalized US citizen in 1987. The US State Department declined to comment.

“Speaking publicly about specific purported cases of detained Americans can complicate our tireless efforts to secure their freedom,” a State Department official said to CNN.

Kim said he was aware of North Korea's claimed hydrogen bomb test on January 6, an action met with skepticism by the international community, but nonetheless ramped up tension in the Korean peninsula.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un maintains that last Wednesday's test was of a thermonuclear weapon, and says that its nuclear weapons program is a matter of self-defense against an American threat of nuclear war.

Given the test, said Kim, it was now time "for the US government to drop its hostile policies against North Korea," and he appealed for a "peace treaty" among the two nations, as well as for "the US or South Korean government to rescue me." 

From the same hotel room, Canadian pastor Hyeon-soo Lim, who has been jailed for life with hard labour in North Korea, also gave an interview, which CNN aired Saturday. He said he spends eight hours a day, six days a week digging holes in an orchard in a prison camp where he is the only inmate.

Mr. Lim said it had been difficult adapting to the physical requirements of his imprisonment, which began after he was convicted last month on charges of “subversive” acts against North Korea. He was detained in January of last year, an act Canada has condemned. 

“I wasn’t originally a laborer, so the labor was hard at first,” said Lim, wearing a grey prison outfit with the number 036. “But now I've gotten used to it.”

Neither Pyongyang or Washington have released any recent reports of any detained Americans in North Korea.

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