Yesterday, Matthew Todd Miller, age 25, was given six years of hard labor as punishment in North Korea. Unless the United States is able to successfully intervene, he will spend the next six years in one of their prisons after being sentenced of performing “hostile acts” against the government of North Korea. He is the third American to be detained in the secretive country, along with Kenneth Bae and Jeffrey Edward Fowle.
A native of Bakersfield, Calif., Miller, according to a North Korea state news agency, was detained on April 10 when he arrived in the country for a private tour and proceeded to rip up his VISA at Immigration Customs. It is believed he was seeking asylum. Not much else is known about Miller, perhaps in part because his family has requested that those who know him not talk to reporters.
Nonetheless, a few have given details here and there. He graduated from Bakersfield High School in 2008. Classmates said he seemed like a normal kid; a few described him as quiet. A neighbor said that four years ago, Miller got a job teaching English in South Korea, where he was up until April 10, when he was detained in North Korea.
Last week, Miller, Bae and Fowle each gave an interview with CNN to discuss their situation and plea to the U.S. for help. The interview was closely monitored by North Korean government officials. Asked what his crime was, Miller said he did not know and would not know of his charges until his trial. He did admit to tearing up his passport on purpose, though.
According to The Associated Press, who was allowed to attend the trial yesterday, the “hostile act” that Miller was convicted of was spying on the North Korean government, which is a crime under Article 64 of the North Korean criminal code. It is not known whether Miller still seeks asylum in North Korea, nor is it known why he sought it in the first place. However, the North Korean government reportedly believes Miller deliberately broke North Korean law in order to be sentenced to a North Korean prison, experience what life is like in the prison camps and later give a firsthand account.
North Korea also believes he developed a deep hostility towards their government after being subjected to constant anti-North Korean press from four years of teaching English in South Korea. Once detained, he also reportedly demanded to see Bae. North Korea has been referred to as “the land of the bizarre” and the “hermit kingdom” due to its secretive nature and extremely restrictive press, both inside North Korea and outside of it. The people of North Korea are deliberately kept in the dark about what is going on outside of North Korea and the people outside of North Korea are deliberately kept in the dark about what is happening in North Korea. However, some insight into life in North Korea has been given in a handful of reports and documentaries.
According to Inside North Korea, a documentary by the company, VICE, the people of North Korea have “no cultural references” outside of North Korea. When one of the subjects in the film, Shane Smith (who risked his life by secretly wearing a camera hidden the entire time he was there), was taken to a restaurant with karaoke, he chose to sing a song from the punk-rock genre , and when handed the mic, he began to mimic the singer in an over-dramatized impersonation of punk-rock back in the 1990’s, when the grunge scene was popular. No one understood, everyone in the restaurant gave him a weird look and just assumed Smith had too much to drink.
“So, after we drove back from DMZ and our choreographed lunch,” said Smith, referring to the lunch they’d had a restaurant where no one else was there, “you realize that everything is choreographed.” Their entire trip, he and his cameraman were closely monitored by government officials who never leave their side. Their tour guide also got angry when Smith stood in front of a picture of Kim-Jung-Il and demanded he move. This is the same tour that Miller was supposed to go on when he arrived in North Korea, but apparently, he had other plans.
By Lindsey Dow