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Story highlights

North Korean officials give CNN access to a man they claim is a U.S. prisoner

Kim Dong Chul says he is a naturalized U.S. citizen, arrested on spying charges

According to North Korea, Kim was detained in October 2015

(CNN) —  

Is North Korea holding an American prisoner? That’s what a man CNN spoke to in Pyongyang claims.

As tensions on the Korean peninsula continued to rise and Seoul and Washington officials discussed the potential deployment of more troops to South Korea, officials in Pyongyang gave CNN exclusive access to a man North Korea claims is a U.S. citizen arrested on espionage charges.

Speaking to CNN’s Will Ripley, the man identified himself as Kim Dong Chul, a naturalized American, who said he used to live in Fairfax, Virginia.

“I’m asking the U.S. or South Korean government to rescue me,” Kim said during an interview at a hotel in the North Korean capital.

Kim, 62, was frogmarched into the room by stony-faced guards, who insisted that the interview be conducted in Korean, through an official translator.

The translation was later independently corroborated by CNN.

A U.S. passport for Kim Dong Chul provided to CNN by North Korean officials.
David Hawley/CNN
A U.S. passport for Kim Dong Chul provided to CNN by North Korean officials.

Spying for ‘conservative elements’

Kim told CNN that in 2001 he moved to Yanji, a city near the Chinese-North Korean border that acts as a trade hub between the two countries.

From Yanji, Kim said he commuted daily to Rason, a special economic zone on the North Korean side of the border, where he served as president of a company involved in international trade and hotel services.

According to Kim, he spied on behalf of “South Korean conservative elements,” for which he was arrested in October 2015.

“I was tasked with taking photos of military secrets and ‘scandalous’ scenes,” he said.

Kim named a number of South Koreans he said “injected me with a hatred towards North Korea.”

“They asked me to help destroy the (North Korean) system and spread propaganda against the government.”

Caught red-handed

According to Kim, North Korean officials said they had been monitoring his activities since 2009, two years after he established his cross-border business.

He started working as a spy in April 2013, bribing local residents to “gather important materials,” which he smuggled into China or South Korea.

Asked whether he worked for the U.S. at any time, Kim said categorically that he did not.

Kim was arrested in October 2015 while he was meeting a source to obtain a USB stick and camera used to gather military secrets.

The source, a 35-year-old former North Korean soldier, was also arrested. Kim said he did not know the other man’s fate.

During the almost two years of spying in North Korea, Kim only made around $5,300 (35,000 yuan).

Asked why he would risk his freedom for such a relatively paltry sum of money, Kim said that “it wasn’t about the money.”

Kim left a wife and two daughters behind in China, with whom he has had no contact since his detention. Repeated attempts to reach his wife using a phone number provided by Kim were unsuccessful.

Secret U.S. detainee?

Kim’s claims were made in the presence of North Korean officials and CNN cannot determine whether they were made under duress.

If true, Kim would be the only U.S. citizen held prisoner in North Korea, a fact not revealed until today.

Americans Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller were released by Pyongyang in November 2014. By that point, Bae had spent more than two years in prison in North Korea.

Hours after the interview with CNN’s crew, North Korean authorities provided his passport for inspection.

The U.S. State Department said they could not confirm whether Kim is a U.S. citizen, telling CNN that “speaking publicly about specific purported cases of detained Americans can complicate our tireless efforts to secure their freedom.”

On Saturday, CNN spoke to jailed Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, who said that he hoped “to go home some day.”

In good health

Kim appeared in good health, and said he was getting proper nourishment and three meals a day.