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Pyongyang may seek ‘hostage diplomacy’ amid crisis

Posted April. 25, 2017 07:19,   

Updated April. 25, 2017 07:27


Korean-American Tony Kim (Kim Sang-deok, 58), a former professor of the Yanbian University of Science and Technology in China, was arrested by the North Korean authority at Sunan Airport in Pyongyang on Friday when he was about to leave North Korea after completing lectures for a month at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. As a result, there is a growing concern that some 80 faculty members at the university in the North Korean capital could be taken as hostages. It means that if tension escalates or armed conflict arises due to the North’s sixth nuclear test or other reason, those professors can become hostages at any time.

Some 80 foreign nationals including 30 Korean-Americans, and those from the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Australia are living at the university’s dormitory while teaching North Korean students at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, which was inaugurated as a joint venture between South and North Korea in October 2010. About 400 undergraduate students in three colleges namely IT, agricultural life science, and finance and management, and 120 graduate students in three areas namely IT, industrial management and agriculture and food engineering are currently enrolled at the university. Situated in Nakrang-gu district in Pyongyang, the university was established by converting the site of military barracks into a campus at the instruction of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

While teaching accounting at the Yanbian University of Science and Technology for about 10 years until last year, Kim had been engaged in volunteer activities to take care of orphans, children and disabled people from the North's Rajin-Sonbong special economic zones and those from North Korea-China border and mountainous areas in the North. It has been confirmed that Kim has been teaching accounting recently at the department of finance and management at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology for a month on a regular basis.

“The North’s detention of Kim, who has conducted volunteer service for a long time with sincerity and dedication and has been maintaining a good relationship with the North Korean authority, indicates that Pyongyang has become so impatient and irritated,” said an informed source on North Korea. “The incident has demonstrated that amid a string of developments including U.S. President Donald Trump’s remarks on preemptive strikes, more than 80 foreign faculty members who are staying in Pyongyang could become hostages at any time. The North Korean authority gave consideration including rapid visa issuance to faculty of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in order to help nurture world-class professionals, but Pyongyang apparently deems the current situation as a military emergency.”

Korean-American Kim Dong-cheol, who ran a hotel in the Rajin-Sonbong district in the North and engaged in trade between North Korea and China, and U.S. college student Otto Warmbier, are currently serving prison terms of hard labor for 10 and 15 years, respectively.

Ja-Ryong Koo bonhong@donga.com