SEOUL (REUTERS, AFP) – North Korea detained a U.S. citizen on Friday (April 21) as he attempted to leave the isolated country, bringing the total number of Americans held by the isolated country to three.
Korean-American Tony Kim had spent a month teaching an accounting course at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the university’s chancellor, Chan-Mo Park, told Reuters on Sunday.
Kim, who also goes by his Korean name Kim Sang-duk and is in his fifties, was detained by North Korean officials at Pyongyang International Airport as he attempted to leave the country, Park said.
“The cause of his arrest is not known but some officials at PUST told me his arrest was not related to his work at PUST. He had been involved with some other activities outside PUST such as helping an orphanage,” Park said. “I sincerely hope and pray that he will be released soon”.
An official at South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said it was not aware of the reported arrest.
Kim is listed as an accounting professor on the website of PUST’s sister institution in neighbouring China, the Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST). Calls to YUST were not answered.
PUST was founded by evangelical Christians and opened in 2010, with students generally the children of the country’s elite. Its volunteer faculty, many of whom are evangelical Christians, has a curriculum that includes subjects once considered taboo in North Korea, such as capitalism.
The director of a Seoul-based group called the World North Korea Research Center also said his sources in Pyongyang had confirmed the arrest.
“The reason North Korea is not saying anything yet is because it is not done with the investigations,” Mr Ahn Chan-il, a former defector, told AFP.
“It is important for them to hold a US citizen hostage at this point to prevent Washington from carrying out a decapitation of Kim Jong-Un,” Mr Ahn said, referring to the North’s fears that the US plans a secret military strike to topple its leader. “It’s also a resolve to point a double-action revolver against the US and China because he is a US citizen who worked in China.”
US President Donald Trump has urged China to take stronger steps to press the North to curb its nuclear and missile programmes. Mr Trump’s deputy Mike Pence, during a regional tour last week, warned that “all options are on the table” to curb the North’s nuclear ambitions as fears grow it may be planning another atomic test.
North Korea, which has been criticised for its human rights record, has in the past used detained Americans to extract high-profile visits from the United States, with which it has no formal diplomatic relations.
North Korea is already holding two Americans.
Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old student, was detained in January last year and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour by a North Korean court for attempting to steal a propaganda banner.
In March 2016, Korean-American Kim Dong Chul, 62, was sentenced to 10 years hard labour for subversion.
US 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.