Two North Korean Spies, a Ukrainian Jail and a Murky Tale

While speaking good Russian, which is widely spoken in Ukraine, Mr. Ri does not talk much, his cellmates said, but he does watch a lot of television, particularly reports on the accelerating progress of a North Korean missile program that he had tried in vain to serve. Instead of prized secrets, he received an eight-year prison term for espionage.


Mr. Ri’s prison cell. According to his cellmates, Mr. Ri does not talk much, but does watch a lot of TV, particularly reports on the progress of the North Korean missile program.

Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

His fourth floor cell at the No. 8 Prison in Zhytomyr, a hulking brick building built during the reign of Russia’s last czar, has cable TV. A brick wall in the courtyard below offers a grim reminder of less accommodating times: it is pockmarked with bullet holes left by Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, later renamed the KGB, which used the spot to execute prisoners.

Asked in an interview whether he felt pride at North Korea’s recent string of successful launches, Mr. Ri, who has a family back in Pyongyang, blanched and said he did not want to talk about rockets.

Apparently eager to counter a widespread belief that North Korea had made such fast progress by stealing foreign technology, he said that his country “has had good rockets for more than 20 years” and also very good engineers.

Denys Chernyshov, Ukraine’s deputy minister of justice, described Mr. Ri and Mr. Ryu as “very well trained. They are tough guys, real spies,” he said.

He noted that, despite six years of detention, they had never written or received letters from family or friends. “They live in a total vacuum,” he said.

After a string of failed tests with an intermediate range missile, Musudan, that had been the target of American sabotage, North Korea last year suddenly and…

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