Joo Won-Moon is member of a very exclusive but growing group: foreigners who have deliberately sought arrest in North Korea.
Joo, a 21-year-old student at New York University, was released from his five-month detention in the cloistered country on Monday. A South Korean citizen with permanent residency in the United States, Joo took a semester off school to travel, entering North Korea illegally through China by climbing barbed wire fences.
Joo’s subsequent arrest was no accident, he told CNN during a North Korea-arranged interview in May. Joo says he sought arrest as a way to repair relations between North and South Korea.
“I thought that by my entrance to the DPRK, illegally I acknowledge, I thought that some great event could happen and hopefully that event could have a good effect on the relations between the north and [South Korea],” Joo told CNN.
While most would balk at the prospect of arrest in North Korea, a notoriously reclusive country with a reputation for brutal labor camps, some detainees are arrested by choice. Joo is not the only American to attempt such a stunt.
In April 2014, American citizen Matthew Miller entered North Korea from China as a tourist. While in China, Miller filled a notebook with bizarre writing, claiming to be a hacker trying to remove America’s military presence in South Korea. When North Korean police detained and attempted to deport him, Miller argued to remain behind bars in the country.
During a trial in which he was sentenced to six years of hard labor, Miller claimed that he had been curious about the country, and had wanted to speak to its citizens in ways that conventional tourism would not allow. He was released to America after just eight months of his sentence.
Other Americans have been arrested for political demonstrations in North Korea. On Christmas, 2009, activist Robert Park crossed the frozen Tumen River between China and North Korea, shouting “South Korea and America love you” and smashing a photograph of North Korea’s then-leader Kim Jong-Il.
Park was aware that he was risking arrest. “I don’t want President Obama to come and pay to get me out,” he told Reuters days before his protest. He was detained immediately after entering the country, and released 43 days later. During his imprisonment, Park says he was subjected to torture and sexual abuse, ordeals from which he still bears psychological scars.
Joo appears to have been treated more humanely. He said he was kept in a hotel room rather than a labor camp, he told CNN during his May interview, which was admittedly under North Korean supervision.
Joo is still in South Korea, where he could potentially face charges for entering North Korea without government permission. But members of the NYU community say they’re happy for his relative freedom outside North Korea.
“He and his family have been in our thoughts,” NYU spokesperson John Beckman told The Daily Beast. “We’re relieved to learn of his release and glad for this good outcome.”
“I’m just glad that he has been released and think it’s a shame that he was held for so long,” Robert Ascherman, an NYU student, said. “Six months in prison for just crossing a border is absurd and must have been a quite difficult experience.”