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North Korean treatment of Western prisoners is bizarre, not always physically brutal

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 4 days ago Mike James
U.S. student Otto Warmbier is pictured speaking at a press conference in Pyongyang. North Korea. © AFP/Getty Images U.S. student Otto Warmbier is pictured speaking at a press conference in Pyongyang. North Korea.

North Korea's deplorable record of human rights offenses speaks for itself. But the most curious element of the Otto Warmbier tragedy is why the young student may have been so badly mistreated at the hands of his captors, who some survivors say are strangely cordial to Western prisoners.

Consider the case of Matthew Todd Miller, a California man who in 2014 was sentenced to six years of forced labor in North Korea. Miller, who was released six months later, says he was actually treated rather well and even was allowed to keep his iPhone and iPad for at least a month. He listened to his digital music while in captivity.

"I was prepared for the torture. But instead of that, I was killed with kindness," he said in an interview with NK News.

Warmbier, 22, died Monday after coming back to the U.S. in a coma that lasted for 15 months of his North Korean captivity. The New York Times wrote that intelligence reports suggested Warmbier endured beatings, but doctors in the U.S. who examined him last week say his body shows no signs of physical trauma. 

Miller, who was not much older than Warmbier at the time of his arrest, said he was held in what he described as a “guest house” – the same place where he said fellow American Kenneth Bae was being held. “They would deliver me food. There were other prisoners in the guest house, too. I could hear them unlocking the doors from the outside to deliver them food."

Bae told reporters and wrote in his book "Not Forgotten" that while there were psychological abuses — he was interrogated 15 hours a day and it let up only after he agreed to sign a paper saying he was a terrorist — he was never beaten. He was freed in 2014 and returned to the U.S., along with Miller.

“There seems to be a general attitude of not using physical violence against Americans, although they don’t appear unwilling to use psychological tactics and that sort thing,” Robert R. King, a former State Department special envoy for North Korea human rights issues, told the Times. King handled Mr. Warmbier’s case until he retired in January.

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“This situation with Warmbier is likely something that happened that (North Korea) did not intend,” King said. 

In most cases, Western prisoners are coveted as political bargaining chips in the North Korean system. Unlike their own citizens, a Westerner is likely to be released someday and bruises or abuses would be detected. But psychological abuse, based on reports from freed captives, appears to be the norm for Western prisoners until they confess. Aijalon Gomes, an American teacher detained in North Korea in 2010 for 213 days, said in a 2015 interview that he was held in a freezing, tiny cell.

"After a wooden door was opened, I was untied and forced into the cement crawlspace.  It was no bigger than a dog’s house," Gomes said in the interview. "A little while later, an old blanket that looked like carpet underlayment was thrown in. And later still, a package of Korean or Chinese snack food was tossed in."

Merrill E. Newman, an 85-year-old former U.S. Army officer who served in the Korean War, was held by North Korea for 42 days in 2013, accused of war crimes. He spent most of his time in captivity at the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang, where Swedish consular officials reported that he seemed to be well cared for and was even receiving necessary medications for a heart condition. Newman reported after his release that he had been held in comfortable conditions, although he said his "confession" to North Korean authorities was coerced.

Not every American has been given a pass on violence in North Korea. In an interview with the South Korean news agency Yonhap, Robert Park, a missionary held in North Korea in 2009, said he was severely beaten by soldiers. 

Park, from Tucson, Ariz., said women with clubs beat him mercilessly in the genitals. 

"I saw the devil in their eyes. They are much worse than people in Nazi Germany," Park said. The torture went on for days in what Park now believes was an attempt to keep him silent about torture. He said he thought that his captors wanted to drive the idea in his head that he should commit suicide after his release.

"North Korea would not have released me if they thought that I could recover" from the torture, Park said.

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