Saturday 3 December 2016

North Korea arrests US student for 'hostile act'

Hyung-Jin Kim

Published 23/01/2016 | 02:30

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is pictured visiting the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces. Photo: Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is pictured visiting the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces. Photo: Reuters

North Korea announced yesterday that it has arrested an American university student for what it called a "hostile act".

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Pyongyang claimed that the student was working for the American government to undermine the nation.

In language that mirrors past North Korean claims of outside conspiracies, media reported that the University of Virginia student entered the country under the guise of a tourist and plotted to destroy North Korean unity with "the tacit connivance of the US government and under its manipulation."

The North's official Korean Central News Agency said in a short report that the student, whom it identified as Warmbier Otto Frederick, was "arrested while perpetrating a hostile act," but didn't say when he was detained or explain the nature of the act. North Korea has sometimes listed English-language surnames first, in the Korean style. The University of Virginia's online student directory lists someone named Otto Frederick Warmbier as an undergraduate commerce student.

A China-based tour company specialising in travel to North Korea, Young Pioneer Tours, confirmed that one of its customers, identified only as "Otto," had been detained in Pyongyang, the North's capital, but provided no other details. Social media accounts for Warmbier show interests in finance, travel and rap music; he was on the University of Virginia's dean's list and attended high school in Wyoming City, a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Wyoming City Schools spokeswoman Susanna Max said Warmbier was the salutatorian of his 2013 graduating class in the highly rated public high school. She said school officials were in communication with Warmbier's family, which includes two sisters in Wyoming schools.

The US State Department said in a statement that it was "aware of media reports that a US citizen was detained in North Korea," but had "no further information to share due to privacy considerations."

North Korea's announcement comes amid a diplomatic push by Washington, Seoul and their allies to slap Pyongyang with tough sanctions for its recent nuclear test. In the past, North Korea has occasionally announced the arrests of foreign detainees in times of tension with the outside world in an apparent attempt to wrest concessions or diplomatic manoeuvring room.

North Korea also regularly accuses Washington and Seoul of sending "spies" to overthrow its government to enable the US-backed South Korean government to control the entire Korean Peninsula. Some foreigners previously arrested have read statements of guilt that they later said were coerced.

A few thousand Westerners are thought to visit North Korea each year, and Pyongyang is pushing for more tourists as a way to help its dismal economy.

Detention

The US State Department has warned against travel to North Korea, however, and visitors, especially those from America, who break the country's sometimes murky rules risk detention, arrest and possible jail sentences, although most have eventually been released.

Earlier this month, CNN reported that North Korea had detained another US citizen on suspicion of spying. It said a man identified as Kim Dong Chul was being held by the North and said authorities had accused him of spying and stealing state secrets. North Korea has yet to comment on the report.

The Korean Peninsula remains in a technical state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. About 28,500 American troops are stationed in South Korea.

Irish Independent

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