NYU Student Tries Hand at International Diplomacy
Summary: NYU Stern Junior Won-Moon Joo, A South Korean national and United States permanent resident, has been detained in North Korea since April after sneaking into the country from China. Released after 6-months, many details remain uncertain about his stay and the possible implications.
With the upcoming 70th anniversary of the Worker’s Party of North Korea this Sunday and increasingly strained tensions on the Korean peninsula, October 5th marks an unusually fortunate day in inter-Korean relations.
Back in April of this year, Won-Moon Joo – a South Korean international student studying at New York University – was detained after illegally entering North Korea from China. In a CNN interview conducted a month later at the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang, Joo made his first public appearance since being apprehended. In what appeared to be a prepared – and possibly coached – statement, Joo acknowledged his illegal entrance to the DPRK and expressed his hopes “that some great event could happen…that could have a good effect on the relations" between the two Koreas. When asked what kind of great event he was referring to, the response was light-hearted:
“I’m not really sure yet.” Instead, Joo optimistically focused on how his potential release would elucidate to the international community that the North is indeed capable of “generous treatment,” despite his clear violation of South Korea’s National Security Law (under the charges of entering the North without government permission and making pro-North remarks), as well as vindicate the utility of his seemingly purposeless escapade into the communist nation.
In response to Joo’s detainment, a ministry spokesperson from South Korea’s Unification Ministry stated:
“It is deeply regrettable that North Korea is detaining Joo Won-moon, who is a South Korean national, without any explanation to our government and his family. The government strongly demands the North immediately release Joo and return him to the arms of his family."
Considering Joo’s odd motivations and the rash unpredictability of North Korean foreign policy, the student’s fate was largely uncertain. Joo was the fourth known South Korean national apprehended in the country; two of those nationals were arrested in March on charges of spying (claims the South's National Intelligence Service called "groundless”) and subsequently sentenced to hard labor for life. Historically, the United States has been largely successful securing the release of its citizens despite not having a diplomatic or consular relationship with the DPRK, often at the expense of special humanitarian visits (i.e. New Mexico congressman Bill Richardson in 1996, former president Bill Clinton in 2009, former president Jimmy Carter in 2010). However, the repatriation of South Korean nationals is much more difficult and often unsuccessful, placing Joo in a purgatory of outcomes.
Five months after Joo’s arrest on September 25, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the sole news agency in North Korea, sanctioned a thirty-minute press conference in which Won-Moon Joo delivered an amiable statement all too typical of the agency’s ideological propaganda.
Making clear that his address was given in free will and intended to spread “the truth” about North Korea, Joo reasserted the North’s "humanitarian way" of treating him and professed the North as a "man-centered society where everything is for the benefit of the people." He described his positive observations of “North Korean college students conversing in English, watching foreign movies in theaters and even reading western novels on the computer.”
As a result, in what appears to be a conciliatory measure in currently strained inter-Korean affairs, North Korea repatriated Joo early morning on October 8th. Experts claim that the North’s rare instance of clemency may have been to “promote its regime as an advocate of human rights ahead of its anniversary.” Considering the pro-North content matter of Joo’s September press conference and his supposed desire to spurn a “great event,” these factors may have contributed to his sudden release. However, the student’s brief stint in the one of the world’s most isolated countries is still questionable. Three other South Koreans under much more severe circumstance remain detained, while the escalation of the North’s nuclear provocations perpetually increases the need for joint South Korea–United States military exercises.
While Won-Moon Joo’s return to the United States should provide further insight into his detainment and the veracity of the statements he made, this occurrence only substantiates the difficult and somewhat odd complex that exists on the Korean peninsula.
- Samuel Kim