Both men work at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, one of the few schools to employ foreign experts in North Korea.
Michael Madden, a visiting scholar at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, says the timing of the US detention was “no accident.”
Friday’s report said that a “hideous terrorist group” conspired with the CIA and South Korea’s National Intelligence Service to mount the “bio-chemical” attack.
CNN was not able to independently corroborate the report and South Korea’s intelligence service told CNN they knew nothing about an alleged plot.
Keeping close watch
Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, or PUST, is run by evangelical Christians, and due to exposure to foreign faculty members, pupils are heavily vetted for something Madden calls “political reliability” before they are admitted.
The university is still highly outward-looking by North Korean standards, in a nation where foreign academics are relatively rare.
Even so, it’s expected that students report on their interactions with foreign staff.
“Foreign nationals in the DPRK really have to allow for there to be no ambiguity or interpretation about any of their interactions or what they’re doing,” says Madden, a contributor to North Korean monitoring organization 38 North.
He says that plausibly innocuous exchanges can be interpreted differently by the North Korean security authorities who read the reports.
Author goes undercover
In 2011, writer Suki Kim went undercover at PUST, posing as an English teacher and missionary.
“There, in that relentless vacuum, nothing moved. No news came in or out. No phone calls to or from anyone. No emails, no letters, no ideas not prescribed by the regime,” Kim wrote in her bestselling book, which was published in 2015.
Madden says that the behavior of faculty members and exchanges at the university will inevitably have been under additional scrutiny by security forces as a result of the book.
“PUST is certainly going to be in the crosshairs for — let’s say special attention — by the North Korean authorities because of that book,” says Madden.
The school offers free education to children of the North Korean elite, many of whom would otherwise be sent abroad for school.
“PUST exposes them to all sorts of subject matter and to interesting people,” Madden said. “They benefit enormously from that, and North Korea is not going to upset that applecart.”
“The book has been out for a while,” says John Delury, associate professor at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul.
However, he adds that it could have taken North Korean security services a year or so to get their hands on a copy. In his view it’s impossible to separate the link with PUST in these detentions from the wider tensions on the peninsular.
“So much is at play now and they’re both US citizens — there’s a lot in the air now as far as perceived threats,” he says.