North Korea Is Taking More Americans Hostage and Treating Them Worse, Former Diplomat Says

Just weeks after the death of American college student and North Korea hostage Otto Warmbier, a former U.S. diplomat has said he thinks the reclusive nation is treating its prisoners increasingly worse.

David Straub, a fellow at the South Korea–based think tank Sejong Institute and a former State Department senior foreign service officer, told Yonhap News Agency on Tuesday he believes "North Korea not only feels free to take more people hostage" but also handle them more harshly as tensions between the U.S. and Pyongyang continue to rise.

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"There's a definite change in the way they have treated Americans, and they keep raising their demands to return them," Straub said. He added, "When some of the first Americans were taken in prison, North Koreans were very, very careful with them and released them early, but as time has gone by...they think now the U.S. is a paper tiger and the U.S. can't do anything."

Straub went on to discuss a 2009 meeting between former President Bill Clinton and the late dictator Kim Jong Il. Straub traveled with Clinton on the trip, during which he won the release of detained American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee. North Korean media published propaganda photos of Clinton talking to the supreme leader and getting flowers from a young girl, according to the New York Times.

"It was clear that basically North Korea just wanted to have a photograph of Kim Jong Il with Bill Clinton so they could show their people and the world and feel good about having forced the U.S. to bend to their will," Straub told Yonhap Tuesday.

Straub predicted the same could happen to officials under President Donald Trump.

The Trump administration recently freed Warmbier from North Korea after more than a year spent in captivity, after the student allegedly tried to steal a poster from a hotel there. When Warmbier was released, he was found to be in a coma with serious brain damage. He died on June 19.

Not much is known about the conditions Warmbier faced in North Korea, so it's difficult to know for sure whether Straub's claims about prison getting worse are true.

However, a few former prisoners have shared their own experiences in recent years. Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American released in 2014, told CNN he worked "worked from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., working on the field, carrying rock, shoveling coal." Bae lost 60 pounds and claimed prosecutors repeatedly told him that everyone in the U.S. had forgotten about him.

Ling, one of the people Clinton freed, also told Oprah Magazine in 2010 she couldn't contact the outside world while serving her time.

"It was a 5-by-6-foot cell, and there were a couple of slats on the doors," she said. "There were no bars, so you couldn't see out, and if they closed those slats, it just went completely dark."

As of this month, three Americans are still in North Korean custody: Tony Kim (also called Kim Sang-duk), Kim Hak-song (or Jin Xue Song) and Kim Dong-chul.