2 South Koreans detained in North Korea admit to spying for Seoul in CNN interviews

Two South Koreans awaiting trial in North Korea on espionage charges have admitted to spying for Seoul in interviews with CNN in Pyongyang conducted in the presence of North Korean minders. -- PHOTOS: REUTERS
Two South Koreans awaiting trial in North Korea on espionage charges have admitted to spying for Seoul in interviews with CNN in Pyongyang conducted in the presence of North Korean minders. -- PHOTOS: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - Two South Koreans awaiting trial in North Korea on espionage charges have admitted to spying for Seoul in interviews with CNN in Pyongyang conducted in the presence of North Korean minders.

The television news network said it had been unable to independently verify the accounts provided by the two men, who were interviewed separately in different rooms of a Pyongyang hotel on Sunday.

Although both Kim Kuk Gi and Choe Chun Gil claimed they had not been coerced or coached on what to say, CNN noted that their accounts were "strikingly similar".

In his interview with CNN, Choe, 56, said he was working as a businessman in northern China when he was approached by the NIS to gather information and materials from North Korea.

He said he worked as a spy for three years before he was detained trying to obtain materials from inside North Korea, including some with military applications.

Kim, 61, said he was a missionary recruited by the NIS who paid him for information and to acquire new North Korean currency for forging purposes.

Both men face harsh prison sentences given the charges against them.

Last year a South Korean missionary was sentenced to hard labour for life after being tried for espionage and setting up an underground church.

Although they insisted they were speaking for themselves, Kim and Choe's admissions included comments that sounded scripted.

"North Korea never takes innocent people and accuses them of being spies," Kim said at one point, while both detainees praised North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and challenged the findings of a recent UN commission that accused Pyongyang of sweeping human rights abuses.

The interviews were held a day after North Korea said it had arrested another South Korean citizen - a student at New York University with permanent US residency.

The student, identified as 21-year-old Won Moon Joo, was detained for illegally crossing into the North from China in April.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry on Monday called for Joo’s immediate release, saying it was “extremely regrettable... he is being held without any explanation to our government or his family”.

A ministry spokesman also demanded the release of Kim and Choe and their return to the South as soon as possible.“We strongly point out that the more the North commits such inhumane actions, the more criticism it will face from the international community about its human rights record,” the spokesman said.

Foreigners arrested in North Korea have previously admitted to wrongdoings on camera or in writing, only to retract their statements following their release and return home.

North Korea announced the arrest of Kim and Choe in March, describing them as "heinous terrorists" who operated from a base in the Chinese border city of Dandong.

Both were accused of conducting an anti-North Korea "smear campaign" organised by US intelligence and the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS).

The NIS said the charge that the two men were working for the agency was "absolutely groundless".