Abductions Terrorism (NK)

Ten Years Later, South Korea Questions Suspected North Korean Agent in U.S. Resident’s Kidnapping

kim-dong-shik.jpgThe Reverend Kim Dong Shik, a U.S. lawful permanent resident, was kidnapped from China by North Korean agents 10 years ago today. Rev. Kim was there helping North Korean refugees. Somehow, the North Koreans managed to carry Rev. Kim back across the Chinese-North Korean border without any interference from our friends the ChiComs, despite the fact that Rev. Kim was wheelchair-bound (do wheelchairs even exist in North Korea?).

Years later, rumors emerged to the effect that Kim was tortured to death and buried on a North Korean military base. Kim’s American widow and children have just two modest requests — to know what happened to Rev. Kim, and for the return of his body so that they can hold a funeral and visit his grave.

At first, American politicians seemed sympathetic to the Kim family. In January 2005, the entire Illinois congressional delegation (Mrs. Kim lives in the Chicago suburbs) signed a letter to the North Korean government stating that it would oppose removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism until it accounted for Rev. Kim. The letter compared Rev. Kim to Harriet Tubman. One of the signatories was then-Senator Barack Obama. By then, a suspected North Korean agent, Ryu Young-Hwa, was pending trial in South Korea, accused of having been one of Rev. Kim’s captors. Ryu was convicted in April 2005 and is still serving a prison sentence.

The North Koreans never did account for Reverend Kim’s fate, but in June 2008, President Bush announced that he was removing North Korea from the list anyway. Then-candidate Obama flip-flopped and announced his conditional support for the removal. Bush’s North Korea negotiator, Christopher Hill, had brokered the deal to remove North Korea from the list. The Washington Post later asked Hill about a letter sent to him from Rev. Kim’s widow, Esther, asking for Hill’s help to bring Rev. Kim’s remains home. Hill denied having received the letter, but a reader later provided me photographs of Hill receiving it directly from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Almost everyone has now forgotten about Rev. Kim Dong Shik, although the story of his final weeks on this earth continues to unravel. This week, we learn that South Korea is questioning another suspect in his kidnapping:

Do Hee-yun, head of the Seoul-based Citizen’s Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees, told the JoongAng Ilbo that a former North Korean spy who “played a principal role” in the kidnapping of Reverend Kim is being interrogated by South Korean authorities. According to Do, the ex-agent, named Kim, wasn’t staying at the official North Korean refugee shelter Hanawon, but instead was at another facility for investigation. The ongoing investigation should shed some new light on Reverend Kim’s abduction.

On Jan. 16, 2000, he was kidnapped in Yanji, China, and was forced into North Korea. Kim had helped about 13 North Korean refugees in China to move to South Korea in November 1999.

Pyongyang ignored Seoul’s demand for Kim’s repatriation. The pastor reportedly refused to cooperate with the North Korean investigators who wanted to record Kim’s entry as a voluntary one. South Korean intelligence said Kim weighed just 35 kilograms (77.2 pounds) at the time of his death in February 2001, due to torture and malnutrition. But little has been known so far of the North Korean government’s involvement in the kidnapping, and of specific details of how Kim ended up in Pyongyang.

Another defector reported Kim, the agent, to South Korean authorities. Other defectors also apparently identified “Kim” as a North Korean agent.

“Based on Jeon’s testimony, the former agent grabbed Reverend Kim by the arm and pushed him into a taxi,” Do said. “Before handing him over to North Korea, the ex-spy took away his cell phone and $1,000 in cash. These are some specific details.

Human rights groups held memorial rallies for Rev. Kim today in Seoul. If you have any pictures or descriptions, please e-mail them or leave a comment.


  1. Joshua, Is Kim Dong-shik’s case a total aberration or part of a larger pattern of North Korean abductions from Chinese territory?

    On pages 34-35 of Mike Kim’s book Escaping North Korea (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), the author identifies the similar-sounding case of “Missionary Lee,” who, unlike Kim, was ultimately returned after paying a $3600 bribe. Lee supposedly wrote a detailed report about his experiences but, short of contacting Mike Kim to track it down, I have yet to find it.

    Are there more comprehensive resources available, such as a think tank report, on this issue of North Korean abductions from China, or a book (perhaps in Korean?) about Rev. Shik’s case? I would agree with you that this is a very important case, particularly if it is one of a series of actions taken by North Korea in China (with or without PRC government approval, which is a related and equally important issue).

    Just for the record, this 2004 article in Chosun Ilbo reveals that the photo in your post finds Reverend Shik in an expansive mood with a young North Korean judo champion, whose 1996 Atlanta Olympics gold medal the Reverend is proudly wearing. Another sad moment in the history of North Korean cultural/sports diplomacy…

    Thanks for coming back to this issue; it’s one of the big unresolved questions I have about the North Korean-Chinese relationship in the borderlands and I’m glad you’re still posting about it. Any comments you had about the “aberration vs. documented pattern” question would be highly appreciated.


  2. Correction: Reverend KIM, not Shik…yikes.

    And while I’m here and apologizing, as regards your most recent Loren Maazel slam, what did Leonard Bernstein do wrong anyway? Sadly, I’m not up on the latest “Lenny” lit, but I do recall an ecstatic Beethoven 9 he did in Berlin in 1990 in which he at least appeared to be more pro-freedom than Friedrich Schiller and Sarah Palin put together. And if you want to trap Loren Maazel more thoroughly, I suggest just reading everything he said about his opera 1984 and then wondering how the Maestro magically seems to forget everything he said.

    Anyway, thanks for the info on Reverend Kim…



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