A Canadian security consultant who was interrogated for two and a half days in North Korea says he spoke at length with a prisoner in a neighboring cell who identified himself as 58-year-old Tony Kim, the American professor recently imprisoned by the rogue regime of dictator Kim Jong Un.
James Leigh, a businessman said to have global contacts in the intelligence community, tells Newsmax that he traveled to North Korea at the invitation of one of North Korea's military leaders to attend its Military Foundation Day on April 25.
But when Leigh arrived at the airport in Pyongyang on April 22, he was searched, detained, and interrogated for several days, before finally being allowed to continue his journey.
While imprisoned, Leigh says he spoke through paper-thin walls to another detainee who was being beaten and interrogated in an adjoining room. That prisoner identified himself as Prof. Tony Kim.
The North Korean government confirmed on Wednesday that Prof. Kim has been arrested and charged with "acts of hostility" and trying to undermine Kim Jong Un's Hermit Kingdom. He was a visiting professor of accounting at North Korea's University of Science and Technology.
According to Leigh, Prof. Kim told him that many other foreign nationals have been secretly arrested and imprisoned in North Korea.
"He was pretty specific about that," says Leigh. "He knew about that. That was something he really wanted me to know. … There were Americans and Europeans. … He was pretty specific because that was probably where he was going."
During his interrogation, Leigh says, he saw large filing cabinets stuffed with thick files bearing Western-sounding names. One name he specifically recalls seeing was "Brian." Another name was French or Italian. But he says he cannot be certain whether those files represented Westerners secretly consigned to the North Korean equivalent of a Soviet-era "gulag archipelago."
According to Leigh, Prof. Kim said he wanted to leave North Korea because he was suffering undue criticism from his boss. The teacher was reportedly arrested at the airport along with his wife, although she was later released and has returned to the United States.
Two other Americans are currently known to be imprisoned in North Korea. In March, the North Koreans sentenced a 21-year-old University of Virginia student, Otto F. Warmbier, to 15 years of hard labor for taking a propaganda poster down off the wall of a hotel. Another prisoner, businessman Kim Dong Chul, a former Virginia resident, was arrested in October 2015 and is being held on suspicion of espionage.
The account Leigh received from Prof. Kim, if substantiated, would indicate that North Korea has pursued a more widespread, systematic practice of imprisoning Westerners.
"He says there a lot more Americans than we know about being held," says Leigh, who adds that given the thousands of U.S. ex-pats living in Asia and the limited resources available to track their whereabouts when they go missing, he does not find Prof. Kim's claim farfetched or improbable.
Leigh says Prof. Kim's interrogation reflected an odd fixation on U.S. President Donald J. Trump.
"They were saying to him 'Who sent you, did Donald Trump's team sent you? Did the pig Donald Trump [send you].'
"They were calling Donald Trump 'the pig Donald Trump' and 'the war-crazy Donald Trump' and 'the killer-of-innocent-people Donald Trump.' They didn't say America. They kept saying Donald Trump. Which I thought was odd. I thought they'd go, 'Well, the Americans … but they kept saying, 'Were you sent by the pig Donald Trump?'"
In his account to Newsmax, Leigh described hour upon hour of prisoner abuse occurring in the room next door.
"One time, I heard a piece of wood break," he recounts. "Whether it was a piece of wood or a cane they were using, I heard it break. And I heard thuds that sounded like a body falling on the floor. So he was being beat up, lightly, I don't think hard, but he was being slapped around and hit. You've got to imagine, this was going on for a day, 24 hours at least."
"He took it because it's a job," Leigh said, "but also he felt he could do something special and make a difference."
Leigh says after he was released officials took him to his hotel, where he continued to be under rather obvious surveillance for the remainder of his trip. He did attend the military parade, and was seated among other foreign nationals in a section about 50 yards from dictator Kim Jong Un.
One observer seated next to him, a Russian, told Leigh that foreigners are always seated near the strongman, to protect him from a surprise missile or drone attack due to the risk of collateral casualties.
"He was stocky," Leigh says of Kim, "and he also wasn't free and relaxed. He was very stiff, almost marching, very tense. He was just in and out, like he didn't want to be there."
He says during the parade he saw "some interesting looking missiles."
"They would have been medium range missiles most likely, judging from the length of them," he says. "I'm not an expert on missiles, but they would have been intermediate range, the type they would use on Japan or South Korea, but not the type that would be American bound."
Leigh reports seeing several indications that North Korea is now in a state of high military alert: Soldiers toting rifles, military vehicles rushing through the streets, and men walking about carrying what he understood to be military equipment contained in government-issue duffel bags.
Leigh says loudspeakers in North Korea continually spout messages like: "Prepare to honor your country and your leader, and never be afraid if you're right."
He said during his two-and-a-half day imprisonment, Prof. Kim told him, "There's a lot more Americans locked up here than anyone knows.
"I said, 'Are you serious?'"
"He said, 'Yeah, Canadians, Americans, Europeans. There's a whole place to hold them.'"
Leigh credits Prof. Kim's whispered advice from the other side of the paper-thin wall for his eventual release. His fellow prisoner told him that under no circumstances could he respond with anger toward his interrogators, but to never agree to any accusations of espionage no matter how exhausted he might become.
Leigh says Prof. Kim speculated the foreign nationals would be used as leverage in case the regime comes under attack, but that the instructor didn't know whether the victims had been arrested or kidnapped.
Leigh, who was permitted to leave the country on the 27th, calls his captivity "a near-death experience" that has scarred him for life. The hardest part, he says, was knowing that he had to leave Prof. Kim behind.
"You know, there was nothing I could do," he said, growing emotional. "I knew there was nothing I could do. Had I tried to interfere, it probably would have changed the direction I was going. I thought to myself, 'the most valuable thing I can do is get out of here and tell this story.'"
He says Prof. Kim's last words to him were "Stay quiet, keep your head down, and get the hell out of here."