Evan Hunziker

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Evan Carl Hunziker (June 2, 1970 – December 18, 1996) was the first American civilian to be arrested on espionage charges by North Korea since the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War. On August 24th, 1996, he was taken into custody by North Korean police after swimming from China across the Yalu River, drunk and naked. He spent three months in custody there before being released and returned to the United States thanks to the negotiation efforts of then-New Mexico congressman Bill Richardson. However, he committed suicide by firearm in a Tacoma, Washington hotel less than a month later.[1][2]

Early life[edit]

Hunziker's father Edwin Hunziker was a veteran of the Korean War; he spent 12 years stationed in South Korea with the United States Forces Korea, and met Hunziker's mother Jong Nye, a citizen of the country, while living there. The two later settled in Tacoma, where Hunziker's father worked in a variety of jobs including as a bus driver and cement layer. They had three children. Hunziker's father developed a drinking problem; in 1974, Hunziker's father and mother divorced.[3] After the divorce, Hunziker's mother moved to Anchorage, Alaska, where Hunziker spent most of his childhood with various relatives of his mother's. Eventually, Hunziker's mother moved back to Tacoma, where she opened the Olympus Hotel; she took Hunziker with her. Hunziker graduated from Tacoma's Stadium High School in 1988.[4] He went on to earn a football scholarship and attend colleges in Yakima and South Seattle, but began drinking and using drugs, and did not graduate.[3]

Hunziker later returned to Anchorage, where his mother was running a motel with her boyfriend Kevin Hux.[3] There, Hunziker helped out with the business, often driving guests to and from the airport.[5] His mother later introduced him to a young South Korean woman in the hopes that the two would develop a relationship; they married soon after.[3] However, Hunziker's drug and alcohol problems, combined with his violence towards his wife and his relatives, led to the failure of his marriage in 1993.[3] His mother applied for a restraining order against him in that same year; Hux filed for another restraining order two years later after Hunziker allegedly stabbed him in the face with a pencil and assaulted twelve motel employees and tenants in the space of a month.[3] In another incident, he attempted to forcibly remove his former wife from a hospital, and attacked a nurse when she attempted to intervene. From 1992 to 1996, he was arrested seven times on a variety of charges including assault, malicious destruction, and drunk driving.[4]

Hunziker reportedly converted to Christianity while in jail.[6] Upon his release in 1995, he fled back to Tacoma, hoping to avoid being brought up on pending criminal assault charges that his mother had filed against him. In mid-1996, he decided that he wanted to go to South Korea to find a job as an English teacher and evangelize. He borrowed money for an airline ticket to Seoul, and left the United States in July.[3] In Seoul, he stayed with his cousin Yun Jae-hun.[2] According to his parents, Hunziker could speak Korean well, and it would be his third trip to South Korea, including the first one during which he met his wife-to-be.[7] From Seoul, he took a trip to China beginning on August 16; he spent one week in Beijing before proceeding to northeast China by train.[8]


On August 24, Hunziker swam across the Yalu River from Dandong on the China–North Korea border, on a dare from a friend with whom he had been drinking. North Korean farmers found him and summoned the police, who arrested him.[8] Swedish diplomats were able to visit Hunziker once after his detention, on September 17; North Korea ignored later U.S. requests that Hunziker be allowed to receive regular visits.[7] The North Korean government did not announce Hunziker's arrest until October 6; analysts suspected they delayed the announcement until a more strategic time in an attempt to divert attention from two international controversies: one regarding the unsolved murder of South Korean consul for the Russian Far East Choe Deok-geun, in which North Korean involvement was suspected, and the other about the landing on South Korean soil of a North Korean submarine containing 26 commandos.[2] On October 8, the North Korean government formally announced that they would charge Hunziker with espionage, a charge which could bring the death penalty.[7]

Edwin Hunziker called his congressman Randy Tate in an attempt to learn what, if anything, the government was doing for his son.[7] The younger Hunziker was permitted to send a letter home on October 12; in it, he stated that "I came across the border as a Christian man first and foremost to promote peace, and ... I have not confessed to being a spy".[9] Soon after, he was moved from the hotel where he had been held initially to a detention center; Edwin Hunziker would later recall his son's description of the food, that it "was edible and it was sustainable, but it was lousy food".[3] He reportedly signed several confessions, though under psychological duress.[10]

Release and death[edit]

Eventually, New Mexico congressman Bill Richardson, who had a history of negotiating for the release of Americans held by countries with whom the U.S. had poor or no formal relations, arranged to go to North Korea to discuss the matter; he went as a private citizen, but was accompanied by a representative of the United States Department of State.[6] He arrived in North Korea on November 24.[9] According to Richardson, the North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York City initially demanded US$100,000 as a bail and fine for the release of Hunziker, whom they considered a spy and an illegal interloper; however, Richardson refused this demand as an unacceptable quid-pro-quo which would imply Hunziker's guilt. Eventually, the two sides settled on payment of $5,000 hotel costs for the period of Hunziker's incarceration. Hunziker's family, rather than the government, paid the amount in question. Richardson stated that the money was not the major trigger for Hunziker's release; rather, he speculated that the North Korean side realized they had made a major mistake by landing a submarine full of their commandos on South Korean soil, and hoped to reduce tensions and regain aid.[10] He also stated that the North Korean military had been opposed to Hunziker's release. Hunziker was first flown to Yokota Air Base in Japan for a medical examination on November 27.[9] He had two red marks on his neck, possibly rope burns; North Korea claimed he attempted to hang himself while in custody.[4] He arrived back in the United States via Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.[9]

After his release, Hunziker moved back into the Olympus Hotel owned by his mother. He could not return to Alaska due to three outstanding warrants for his arrest by the Anchorage police.[4] According to friends, relatives, and fellow hotel residents, he seemed happy, though not talkative.[3] He often spent his nights in the hotel restaurant; he was found there on the morning of December 18, lying on a bench with a gunshot wound to the head and his cousin's .357 Magnum revolver lying next to him.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Egan, Timothy (1996-12-19), "Man Once Held as a Spy In North Korea Is a Suicide", The New York Times, retrieved 2009-06-08 
  2. ^ a b c Efron, Sonni (1996-10-08), "North's Arrest of American Deepens Freeze in Korea", Los Angeles Times, retrieved 2009-06-08 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Murphy, Kim (1996-12-16), "A Life Won and Lost", Los Angeles Times, retrieved 2009-06-08 
  4. ^ a b c d e Eng, Lily (1996-12-19), "Former Captive's Life Troubled", Seattle Times, retrieved 2009-06-08 
  5. ^ Santana, Arthur; Broom, Jack; Birkland, Dave (1996-10-08), "Man Accused As Spy Is From Tacoma", Seattle Times, retrieved 2009-06-08 
  6. ^ a b Sunde, Scott (1996-11-22), "Man Held in N. Korea May Be Released Soon", Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p. C4, retrieved 2009-06-08 
  7. ^ a b c d Ho, Vanessa (1996-10-09), "Son's Arrest on Spy Charges Jolts Parents", Seattle Post-Intelligencer, retrieved 2009-06-08 
  8. ^ a b Bak, Gwi-yong (1996-12-11), "특종인터뷰: 헌지커 '단동서 헤엄쳐 압록강 건넜다'/Special interview: Hunziker 'swam from Dandong across the Yalu'", Chosun Ilbo, retrieved 2009-06-09 
  9. ^ a b c d "Jailed American Arrives Home For Thanksgiving: North Korea Frees Washington Man", Seattle Times, 1996-11-27, retrieved 2009-06-08 
  10. ^ a b Hunter-Gault, Charlayne (1996-11-26), "The Korean Envoy", PBS NewsHour, retrieved 2009-06-08 

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