North Korea detains third U.S. citizen amid soaring tensions
The Japan Times AP, Reuters, Staff Report Apr 23, 2017
A man holds an umbrella over flowers as people gather to pay their respects at the statues of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung (left) and late leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang on April 14. | REUTERS
PYONGYANG – North Korea recently detained a U.S. citizen, officials said Sunday, in the latest case of an American being held in the country.
The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang said it was aware of a Korean-American citizen being detained recently, but could not comment further. The embassy looks after consular affairs for the United States in North Korea because the two countries do not have diplomatic relations.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing unnamed sources, reported that a Korean-American man was arrested Friday at Pyongyang’s international airport while trying to leave North Korea. It said the man, in his late 50s and identified by his surname, Kim, has been involved in aid and relief programs to North Korea and was a former professor at the Yanbian University of Science and Technology in China. The university has a sister school in Pyongyang.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry and its intelligence agency both said they were unable to confirm the report.
At least two other Americans are currently detained in North Korea. Last year, Otto Warmbier, then a 21-year-old University of Virginia student from suburban Cincinnati, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in prison after he confessed to trying to steal a propaganda banner. Kim Dong Chul, who was born in South Korea but is also believed to have U.S. citizenship, is serving a sentence of 10 years for espionage.
At least one other foreigner, a Canadian pastor, is also being detained in North Korea. Hyeon Soo Lim, a South Korean-born Canadian citizen in his 60s, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2015 on charges of trying to use religion to destroy the North Korean system and helping U.S. and South Korean authorities lure and abduct North Korean citizens.
U.S. missionary Kenneth Bae was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to 15 years hard labour for crimes against the state.
He was released two years later.
North Korea, which has been criticized for its human rights record, has in the past used detained Americans to extract high-profile visits from the United States.
Last month marked one year since Warmbier’s jailing. The U.S. State Department said at the time that it was continuing to press for his release.
“We believe his sentence of 15 years’ hard labor is unduly harsh … for the actions that Mr. Warmbier allegedly took,” spokesman Mark Toner said at the time. “And we urge North Korea to pardon him and grant him special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds.”
The U.S. also used the anniversary to reiterate its advisory against travel by any U.S. citizens to North Korea “due to the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement.”
In a statement posted to its website, the State Department said: “This system imposes unduly harsh sentences for actions that would not be considered crimes in the United States and threatens U.S. citizen detainees with being treated in accordance with ‘wartime law of the DPRK.'”
News of the latest arrest of a U.S. national comes as Washington grapples with Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs.
Tensions with nuclear-armed Pyongyang have soared as the isolated country prepares to mark the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army on Tuesday.
That anniversary comes less than two weeks after the North staged a massive military parade in Pyongyang to celebrate the 105th anniversary of founder Kim Il Sung’s birth. The North has historically marked important anniversaries with provocative events such as missile launches or nuclear tests.
There has been growing speculation that Pyongyang will conduct an intercontinental ballistic missile test soon — possibly this month — after leader Kim Jong Un used a New Year’s Day address to claim that the North was in the final stages of developing such a weapon.