Dutch stamp dealer back home after arrest in North Korea

By Michael Rank

No money was paid for the freeing of a Dutch stamp dealer who went missing in North Korea and is now back home after signing a confession, a local radio and television station reports (in Dutch).

RTV Utrecht said Willem van der Bijl had spent two weeks in solitary confinement in North Korea and that officials had closely examined his laptop and had detailed records of his previous visits to the country.

According to a purported interview van der Bijl gave to the Pyongyang Times before his arrest, this was his 24th visit to North Korea. He visited a polling station during last month’s elections and was quoted as saying, “Looking round the poll, I have been greatly impressed by the free and democratic elections and I have had a better understanding of the DPRK’s reality.

“In the DPRK every citizen is eligible to vote and to be elected. Those who have worked a lot for the people are elected as deputies.

“The popular election system of the DPRK is really excellent.”

Surprisingly, van der Bijl is shown wearing a Kim badge in a photograph of him on the Pyongyang Times website. It’s rare for foreigners to be given a Kim badge and still rarer for them to be shown wearing one in the official North Korean media. It’s not clear where the photo was taken.

It isn’t entirely clear why he was arrested but part of the problem at least was that some of the photographs he had taken were deemed “dangerous and inappropriate,” Coen de Keuster, a friend of van der Bijl, told RTV Utrecht.

Two North Korean contacts of van der Bijl remain missing and are believed to remain in custody. The two North Koreans are said to have worked for him from an office in the city of Pyongsong [Pyeongseong], which is about 30 km northeast of Pyongyang, and has, or had, the country’s largest wholesale market. The market is reported to have been closed in 2009 but the closure could have been only partial. It is possible van der Bijl bought, or hoped to buy, stamps or other items in the market. He apparently also collects North Korean propaganda posters. Markets are highly sensitive in North Korea and foreigners are generally banned from visiting them.

On his website van der Bijl, who is from Utrecht, says he is “#1 in the World for North Korean stamps. Proofs, Postal stationary,Artwork and anything else you might think of !!”

RTV Utrecht said van der Bijl, 59, was not speaking to the media for fear of further jeopardising his North Korean contacts. There was no reply when NKEW tried to phone him, and a Dutch foreign ministry spokesman declined to answer questions about the case, confirming only that the stamp dealer had returned home.

The Dutchman was supposed to return home on July 30 and his family and friends raised the alarm when he did not arrive. He finally arrived back in Utrecht last Saturday.

In his Pyongyang Times interview he was quoted as saying, “I will come to the DPRK in 2012 to join the Korean people commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the birth of President Kim Il Sung”, but it’s not clear whether he still wants to go back or whether he would still be welcome in North Korea.


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