Matthew Miller: The American film-maker who fell foul of North Korea 'obsessed over Alice in Wonderland'

The Californian 'spy' was a loner who lived a double life. Sam Masters reports

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The Independent Online

Preston Somerset was, by all accounts, just another lost soul in Seoul. The young man had no close friends, no job and gave little indication of an interest in the tumultuous affairs of nuclear North Korea.

Instead, the man whose accent changed from British to Californian spent time and money hiring artists to help him create his own animated adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, with which he seemed fascinated.

At one point, Reuters reported, he joined a debating class that help Koreans to converse in English, but rarely spoke. “He was just a mysterious character. He said nothing unless I asked questions,” said Hur Sung-doh, who organised the weekly group debate. “He said he studied journalism and was engaged in newspaper publishing, although I am not sure if he really did that job.”

In short, during the two years Preston Somerset spent in South Korea, he appeared an unlikely spy.

But months later, on 10 April, the same person, whose name was revealed to be Matthew Miller, from Bakersfield, California, was arrested in North Korea for tearing up his visa after entering the country with a US tour group, Uri Tours. At a court hearing last weekend, he was sentenced to six years’ hard labour on espionage charges.

In a televised interview with CNN last month, Miller, 25, spoke with a slight British accent and refused to answer questions on his reason for travelling to North Korea.

In Bakersfield, his family has reportedly instructed friends and neighbours not to speak to reporters. According to the CNN affiliate KBAK, Miller graduated from Bakersfield High School in 2008 where classmates remembered him as an “average kid” who was notably quiet.

“It was very curt and very awkward speaking to him,” said Mike Stewart, a Seoul-based artists’ studio director who met Miller last year, when he received an email from the then Preston Somerset. “He seemed very birdy, ready to bolt at any minute, as of he didn’t know what to say and things like that.”

 

Francis Cole – an American who produces Japanese-style erotic art – said on a freelancing website that he was one of several artists, writers and musicians Miller commissioned to help to produce his own Alice in Wonderland-inspired fantasy tale in the style of a Japanese anime. Miller, under his Preston Somerset alias, and Mr 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 to piece the whole thing together, named “Alice in Red”, according to posts on the deviantArt website. 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.

38-Alice.jpg
Matthew Miller had been making a version of Alice in Wonderland

Photographs from Miller’s trial in Pyongyang showed a page from his notebook that said he had been “involved” in WikiLeaks and had attempted to access files from US military bases in South Korea. Another page appeared to show a list of places in which Miller had spent time over the years, including London. WikiLeaks noted the trial of Miller but did not confirm or deny his involvement with the group.

North Korean state media reported yesterday that Miller had tried to become a “world-famous guy and the second [Ed] Snowden through intentional hooliganism”.

A spokesman for the Democratic Republic of North Korea said: “This is an intolerable insult and mockery of the DPRK and he therefore deserved punishment. The results of the investigation made it clear that he did so not because of a simple lack of understanding and psychopathology, but deliberately perpetrated such criminal acts for the purpose of directly going to prison.”

State media said Miller had deliberately sought his arrest so he could investigate North Korean prison and human rights conditions, and meet and negotiate the release of US missionary Kenneth Bae, serving a hard labour sentence after being convicted of crimes against the state last year.

Days after Miller’s sentencing, a second American attempted to swim across the river into North Korea. The man, aged about 29, was a computer repairman from Texas who wanted to meet Kim Jong-un.

North Korea has three American citizens in detention: Bae, Miller and Jeffrey Fowle. Mr Fowle, who entered the North in April as a tourist, is soon expected to face trial after he was arrested for reportedly leaving a bible at a hotel.

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