What Two Americans Can Expect When North Korea Puts Them On Trial

Korean People’s Army (KPA) officers and soldiers mark the 64th anniversary of the Korean War CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JON CHOL JIN
Korean People’s Army (KPA) officers and soldiers mark the 64th anniversary of the Korean War CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JON CHOL JIN

North Korea’s state-run news agency announced on Monday that two Americans recently detained in the reclusive country can expect to face a trial, a prospect that few have managed to go through and describe to the outside world.

“The relevant organ of the DPRK has made investigation into American tourists Miller Matthew Todd and Jeffrey Edward Fowle who were detained while perpetrating hostile acts after entering the territory of the DPRK,” the brief statement from KCNA read, using the acronym for the country’s official name. “According to the results of the investigation, suspicions about their hostile acts have been confirmed by evidence and their testimonies. The relevant organ of the DPRK is carrying on the investigation into them and making preparations for bringing them before court on the basis of the already confirmed charges.”

ThinkProgress spoke with Han Park, a professor at the University of Georgia who visited North Korea during the imprisonment of the last Americans tried and released — journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling — to informally press for their release. Park stressed that North Korea would likely move forward with the trial no matter what international pressure is brought to bear, as the government believes it is fully within their right to do so. Based on the most recent sentences handed down to Americans, Park predicted that the two currently facing trial will be found guilty and giving 8–15 years of hard labor as a punishment. “If anything like that were to be realized, then we have a very serious problem, because these guys are not going to be coming out of North Korea at all,” Park said. “The living conditions in the labor camps are such that I don’t know if they can survive that long.”

Park noted that the two Americans won’t be tried with a jury deciding the verdict, instead relying on an odd number — 1, 3, or 5 — of judges to render a decision. This tracks with Slate’s explanation of North Korea’s court system at the time Lee and Ling were judged. “The journalists will be tried by the Central Court, the nation’s highest judicial body. Usually, the Central Court only hears appeals cases from the lower, provincial courts, but for grievous cases against the state, it has initial jurisdiction,” Slate wrote then, adding “[l]egal education or experience is not an official prerequisite for becoming a judge, and rulings from the Central Court are not subject to appeal.”

Miller, whose surname has appeared first in most reports from North Korea, was taken into custody in April. “A relevant organ of the DPRK put in custody American Miller Matthew Todd, 24, on April 10 for his rash behavior in the course of going through formalities for entry into the DPRK to tour it,” the report from KCNA at the time said. Uri Tours, which arranged Miller’s visit to the Hermit Kingdom, was “informed early on that Mr. Miller had deliberately ripped his visa and had declared that he was ‘not a tourist,’” the company’s director, John Dantzler-Wolfe, told the New York Times. “Since that time, we have been working with the appropriate diplomatic, governmental and local agencies to resolve the situation.”

Despite charging Miller, KCNA also claims Miller said he had come “to the DPRK after choosing it as a shelter.” Jeffery Fowle was arrested in the beginning of June, after being in the country since late April according to reports. “Diplomatic sources said Fowle was detained for leaving the Bible in his hotel room,” the Associated Press said. “But a spokesman for Fowle’s family said the 56-year-old from Miamisburg was not on a mission for his church.”

As closed off as North Korea is to the outside world, there are few experts on its legal system. Lee and Ling, have yet to describe the exact mechanisms of the trial that saw them sentenced to years of hard labor. It was only the intervention of former president Bill Clinton that prevented them from serving time in North Korea’s infamous labor camps. Kenneth Bae, who has been imprisoned since last year, has not been so lucky. Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, and Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google, attempted to gain his release after he was arrested in Nov. 2012, but were unsuccessful. Despite pleas from his family and pressure to get former NBA star Dennis Rodman to intervene with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Bae’s behalf, Bae remains in prison.

While KCNA hasn’t announced the official charges against Miller and Fowle, looking again at the Ling and Lee case, it’s likely they’ll face at least one similar charge. As South Korean researcher Choi Eun-suk wrote then: “North Korean criminal code article 69 (Jo-seon-min-jok-Jeok-dae-joi, or literally, Korean Nation Antagonism Crime) states, ‘If a foreign person resides abroad with the intention of antagonizing Korea or injuring the body or assets of a sojourning Korean, or if national discord arises, they shall be faced with a sentence of more than 5 and less than 10 years of Reform through Labour (Ro-dong-Ky-ohwa-hyeong). In serious circumstances, [the person] faces a sentence of more than 10 years Reform through Labour.’”

In Bae’s case, it took less than half a month from the time his hearing was announced until he was sentenced. For Lee and Ling, from their first appearance in court until sentencing was four days. A date for Miller and Fowle’s trial has yet to be set, but given the speed of the system once it gets moving, the verdict likely won’t be long coming. From there, it remains to be seen if the U.S. will be able to pull the now three Americans being held from a country whose prison system and overall human rights violations have been called the worst since Nazi Germany and the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.