North Korean authorities have detained dozens of people accused of helping a South Korean missionary smuggle himself into the country, a local source said, as a report suggested that some of them face execution on charges of conspiring with him to set up underground churches.
Those facing punishment include guards who allegedly allowed Kim Jung-wook, a Baptist evangelist held by North Korean authorities since last October, to pass through security checkpoints on his way from China to Pyongyang, according to a source in Sinuiju, a North Korean town bordering China.
Authorities are also stepping up identification and permit checks on travelers along the Sinuiju–Pyongyang route, according to another source.
North Korean authorities presented Kim to the public at a televised press conference in Pyongyang last week where the 50-year-old Baptist “confessed” to working for South Korean intelligence and pleaded for his release.
Foreigners arrested in North Korea are often required to make a public "confession" which can then expedite their eventual release.
Since the press conference, people accused of helping him have been banished to prison camps, and authorities have arrested security guards in charge of the checkpoints Kim allegedly passed through, the source in Sinuiju said.
“After the press conference, dozens of people vanished into thin air,” the source in Sinuiju told RFA’s Korean Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The missing people are presumed to be people connected to Kim Jong-wook or family members of those connected to him, and may be sent to remote areas or to prison camps.”
33 facing execution
A South Korean newspaper, meanwhile, warned Wednesday that 33 people face execution for alleged contact with Kim.
The 33 are accused of trying to overthrow the North Korean regime by working with Kim to set up 500 underground churches in North Korea and will be executed in a secret cell at the State Security Department, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper quoted an anonymous source as saying.
The report could not be independently confirmed.
Kim was arrested on Oct. 7 in possession of Bibles and other religious materials.
At the time, North Korean authorities said only that they had captured a South Korean spy, refusing requests from Seoul to identify him. Seoul denied charges of having sent a spy.
It later emerged that Kim was an evangelist who for seven years had been providing shelter and food to North Koreans living in the Chinese border city of Dandong, across the Yalu River from Sinuiju.
Some of Kim’s fellow activists have said he crossed the river in October to establish the whereabouts of some North Korean refugees who had been arrested in Dandong by Chinese authorities and repatriated, according to various reports.
A South Korean intelligence source in China, however, has said Kim did not enter the border voluntarily, but was kidnapped by North Korean agents in Dandong, according to the Chosun Ilbo.
Security checks stepped up
Travel within North Korea and across the border into China is officially strictly regulated, with people required to obtain passes, but traders and refugees often manage to travel without required permits by bribing border guards and soldiers at checkpoints.
A North Korean businessman who traveled by train from Pyongyang to Dandong the day after Kim’s press conference said that along the way he had encountered double the usual number of identity and pass-card checks.
The checks marked a significant step up in restrictions that would make it harder for many North Koreans to travel without proper permits, he told RFA from Dandong.
“Most people with long-distance business had [until recently] been able to travel without permits by bribing officials, but this could be much more difficult now.”
During last week’s press conference, Kim said he had gone to North Korea to establish a series of underground churches to spread Christianity.
He said he participated in “anti-state” activities aimed at overthrowing leader Kim Jong Un’s regime and received money from South Korean intelligence officials.
Throughout the press conference, North Korean officials showed videos of North Koreans confessing to having come in contact with Kim Jung-wook.
Days after the event, North Korean authorities deported an Australian missionary, John Short, 75, who was arrested after he left a Christian pamphlet in a Buddhist temple during a tour of Pyongyang.
North Korea continues to hold Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, 45, who was detained while leading a group on a tour of the country in 2012 and was later sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
Bae was moved to a hospital last summer in poor health, but said at Kim’s press conference that he was being transferred back to prison.
Reported by Joon-ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hyosun Kim. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.