Alice, steampunk and a false name: enigma of an American jailed in North Korea

Thu Sep 18, 2014 1:55am EDT
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By James Pearson and Ju-min Park

SEOUL (Reuters) - Matthew Miller, the U.S. citizen imprisoned in North Korea on espionage charges, spent months in South Korea pretending to be an Englishman named "Preston Somerset", acquaintances who met or worked with him said.

The 25-year-old native of Bakersfield, California, did not seem to have close friends, a regular job or means of support during the months he spent in Seoul over a period of at least two years, they said. He gave no inkling of any interest in nuclear-capable and unpredictable North Korea.

Instead, he spent time and money hiring artists to help create his own anime adaption of Alice in Wonderland, the Lewis Carroll fantasy with which he seemed fascinated. At one point he joined a debating class that helped Koreans converse in English, but rarely spoke.

"He was just a mysterious character. He said nothing unless I asked questions," said Hur Sung-doh, who organised the weekly group debate.

Miller was arrested in North Korea in April this year for tearing up his tourist visa after entering the isolated country with a tour group. He was sentenced to six years hard labor last week.

The reclusive, Stalinist state of North Korea is a magnet for adventurous foreigners, whether Christian missionaries, curious tourists or individuals drawn to the world's most isolated nation.

One of the last outposts of the Cold War, North Korea is open to but suspicious of Western visitors and any out-of-the-ordinary behavior by tourists is quickly investigated.

The U.S. government advises its citizens against travel to North Korea.   Continued...

U.S. citizen Matthew Todd Miller sits in a witness box during his trial at the North Korean Supreme Court in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang September 14, 2014.  REUTERS