North Korea’s decision to jail an American citizen on spying charges may be part of the “merciless retaliation” that Pyongyang promised after its own spy problems began last month with a submarine incursion into South Korean waters, officials said Monday.
Evan Carl Hunzike, an American citizen who South Korean officials say was born in Tacoma, and is in his early twenties, was arrested Aug. 24 after crossing the Yalu River from China into North Korea.
On Sunday, North Korean officials announced that they had filed espionage charges, which carry a possible death penalty, against Hunzike.
U.S. State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said Monday, “We deny categorically he is in any way connected to the U.S. government.”
“I feel sorry for him,” said one U.S. official in Seoul. “He was probably in the wrong place at the wrong time. And now the North Koreans will use him like putty.”
American officials have released little information about Hunzike, other than that he is a U.S. citizen with an American father and South Korean mother.
South Korean television news, quoting government sources, reported tonight that Hunzike was with a tourist group in China when he became intoxicated and crossed the river into North Korea.
Earlier Monday, South Korean Foreign Ministry officials said they believe Hunzike was a missionary based in China near the North Korean border. They called the charges that he is a spy “ridiculous” and a ploy to deflect worldwide criticism for sending a submarine full of armed infiltrators into South Korea last month.
Officials in Seoul say Hunzike’s arrest is North Korea’s reaction to becoming even more of a global pariah since the submarine incident, in which one man was captured and several remain missing.
Twenty-two others from the submarine either died by their own hand or were killed by their colleagues or South Korean pursuers.
North Korea’s announcement of Hunzike’s arrest came only hours before the first U.S. presidential debate between President Clinton and Republican challenger Bob Dole. In the debate, Dole criticized Clinton’s policy of engagement toward North Korea.
Some observers in Seoul wondered if Pyongyang timed the news of Hunzike’s arrest to cause embarrassment or division in the United States on the eve of the debate. What Pyongyang would hope to accomplish by doing that is unclear, analysts said, except that it might have been a response to several weeks of criticism over the submarine incident.
South Korean President Kim Young Sam has ordered a harder military and government line against North Korea since the armed incursion. Kim has branded the incident a dangerous military provocation and repeatedly assailed the North Korean government over the issue.
The United States has all but frozen its onagain, off-again contacts with North Korea since the submarine incident, at a time when North Korea needs outside assistance to lift itself out of economic crisis.
Millions of its people are believed to be going hungry and their food is being rationed as the isolated country nears what international relief agencies describe as impending famine.
While China and Russia once helped the communist country, in recent years North Korea has had little outside aid. This year it received $8 million in food aid from the United States, $6 million from Japan and $3 million from South Korea. Any more aid in the near future is unlikely, officials say.
A U.S. official in Seoul said Monday that the “American and North Korean relationship has been on ice” since the submarine incident.
Kim Chang Soon, director of the Institute of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said it is no accident that this “spy” arrest follows the submarine incident. “The timing and intention behind all this is that North Korea is trying to send a signal that Washington should stay at least neutral when it deals with the two Koreas.”