Who is Preston Somerset? And why is he in North Korea?

  • People
  • Friday, 19 Sep 2014

An American facing five years of hard labour in North Korea for espionage is more into Alice in Wonderland and steampunk than nuclear missiles.

Matthew Miller had spent months in South Korea pretending to be an Englishman named “Preston Somerset”, say acquaintances who have met or worked with him. The 25-year-old native of Bakersfield, California, did not seem to have close friends, a regular job or any means of support during the months he spent in Seoul over a period of at least two years, they say. Nor did he give an inkling of any interest in nuclear-capable and unpredictable North Korea.

Instead, he spent time and money hiring artists to help create his own anime adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, the Lewis Carroll fantasy with which he seemed fascinated. At one point he joined a debating class that help Koreans converse in English, but rarely spoke. “He was just a mysterious character. He said nothing unless I asked questions,” says Hur Sung-doh, who organised the weekly group debate.

Which is perhaps why everyone was taken aback when the enigmatic Miller was arrested in North Korea on April 10 this year for tearing up his tourist visa after entering the isolated country with a tour group. Then, at a court hearing on Sept 14, the American was sentenced to six years hard labour.

Who is this man? And why is he in North Korea? US citizen Matthew Miller, AKA Preston Somerset, was arrested for committing crimes that were hostile to the government of North Korea, a charge that seems more serious than the crime itself, which saw him ripping his tourist visa upon entering the country in April this year. – Reuters

The reclusive, Stalinist state of North Korea is a magnet for adventurous foreigners, whether Christian missionaries, curious tourists or individuals drawn to the world’s most isolated nation. One of the last outposts of the Cold War, North Korea is open to but suspicious of Western visitors and any out-of-the-ordinary behaviour by tourists is quickly investigated. The US government, on the other hand, advises its citizens against travel to North Korea.

US missionary Kenneth Bae is serving a hard labour sentence in North Korea after being convicted of crimes against the state. Another American, Jeffrey Fowle, was arrested for leaving a Bible in the toilet of a sailor’s club in Pyongyang, and is currently awaiting trial.

On Sept 16, South Korean marines arrested an American man who had been swimming in a river that flows towards North Korea and said he had been trying to go to the North to meet its leader, Kim Jong Un, reports Korean media.

Miller exhibited some unusual behaviour in Seoul, but nothing linked to North Korea, his acquaintances say. To Hur, the English-language teacher, he wrote in 2012 in response to an advertisement: “My name is Preston and I have been in Seoul for about 6 months. I am a student from London and saw (your) post.” Hur said of Miller: “He said he studied journalism and was engaged in newspaper publishing, although I am not sure if he really did that job.”

“Ready to bolt”

In a televised interview with CNN last month, Miller spoke with a slight British accent and refused to answer questions on his motivations to travel to North Korea. Miller’s family has not spoken publicly about him and neither have any neighbours or friends he may have had in the US. Those who met him in South Korea only recall a slightly odd, quiet young man who gave little away.

“It was very curt and very awkward, speaking to him,” says Mike Stewart, a Seoul-based artist’s studio director who met Miller last year, when he received an e-mail from “Preston Somerset”, which Miller later says is a pen name. “He seemed very birdy, like ready to bolt at any minute, like he didn’t know what to say and things like that.”

Miller inspected space Stewart was leasing to local artists and paid hundreds of dollars to rent a studio, but never returned. “He gave me a good chunk of change – and then I never saw him again,” says Stewart, who runs the Jakura Art Space in which Miller had planned to exhibit work from an artist he had commissioned to help create his own spin-off of Alice In Wonderland.

Francis Cole – an American who produces Japanese-style erotic art – says on a freelancing website that he was one of several artists, writers and musicians Miller commissioned to help produce his own Alice in Wonderland-inspired fantasy tale in the style of a Japanese anime.

Miller, under his Preston Somerset alias, and Cole, with the username ‘Eirhjien’, were members of the deviantArt.com community where people can post and share user-made artwork. He recruited a gaming programmer to produce music for him, artists to draw men dressed as Cheshire Cats, and a ghostwriter to help put together the whole thing, named Alice in Red, according to posts on the deviantArt website.

“I vividly remember that he wanted it to have an Alice In Wonderland-like feel,” one of the ghostwriters, who was paid US$200 (RM645) to write for Miller, says via e-mail.

Miller identifies himself as Preston Somerset on several social media websites and cites steampunk, a genre of science fiction, and the Japanese vocal synthesised “humanoid” Hatsune Miku as some of his interests. He lists British writer George Orwell and Irish poet Oscar Wilde as two of his favourite writers.

Miller sits in a witness box during his trial at the North Korean Supreme Court in Pyongyang. – Reuters

It is still not clear what happened in the months between Miller’s quest to self-publish his own version of Alice In Wonderland, and his decision to go to North Korea. Photographs from Miller’s trial in Pyongyang show a page from his notebook that says he had been “involved” in WikiLeaks and had attempted to access files from US military bases in South Korea. Another page shows a list of places in which Miller had spent time over the years, including London.

The Japan-based Choson Sinbo newspaper, which is loyal to Pyongyang and attended Miller’s trial, says he told the court he lived in Seoul, and that he was unemployed. The paper says Miller had promised North Korean authorities he could reveal US state secrets “as if he were Edward Snowden”.

Still, Miller’s bizarre actions and motives remain a mystery. Is he truly privy to state secrets and was trying to curry favour with North Korea? Or is he simply an eccentric attention seeker who got more than what he bargained for? – Reuters

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