An American student arrested in North Korea is the latest in a string of U.S. citizens analysts say the reclusive state has detained in recent years to use as geo-political bargaining chips.
Otto Frederick Warmbier, 21, of Cincinnati, Ohio, a student majoring in economics at the University of Virginia, “was caught committing a hostile act against the state,” the official North Korean news agency, KCNA, reported on Friday.
Warmbier’s actions were “tolerated and manipulated by the U.S. government,” according to the dispatch.
“We can only speculate why he has been detained. But it is quite risky to visit (North Korea) as a tourist given the sensitivities regarding anything about the state, the leadership, government and political system, or geo-politics in general,” Daniel Pinkston, a professor at Troy University in Seoul, told VOA.
Arrested January 2
Warmbier was a member of group trip organized by China-based Young Pioneer Tours and was detained Jan. 2, four days before North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in defiance of United Nations’ sanctions.
The underground nuclear blast prompted strong criticism of Pyongyang from neighboring countries, as well as the United States, and the threat of additional tough sanctions.
State Department spokesman John Kirby says officials are aware of the media reports and that "the welfare of U.S. citizens is one of the department's highest priorities."
"In cases where U.S. citizens are reported detained in North Korea, we work closely with the Swedish Embassy, which serves as the United States' Protecting Power in North Korea." Kirby said the State Department had no further information to share due to privacy considerations.
North Korea strictly regulates tourism and nearly all visitors arrange their travels through officially recognized foreign tour agencies.
The United States and North Korea have no diplomatic relations. The U.S. State Department has for years issued strong recommendations in travel warnings against visiting North Korea (officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), due to “the risk of arrest and long-term detention due to the DPRK’s inconsistent application of its criminal laws.”
Private tour operators have been unable to prevent or resolve past detentions of U.S. citizens there and “have not succeeded in gaining their release,” according to the State Department’s current travel warning on North Korea.
The KCNA report, without elaboration, said Warmbier entered North Korea with an “aim to destroy the country’s unity.”
Many of the North Americans arrested by North Korea in recent years have had links to Christian evangelical groups.
North Korea is an atheist state and for more than a decade has been considered the world’s most dangerous country for Christians, according to the non-governmental Open Doors organization, which categorizes the source of persecution as “dictatorial paranoia."
No religious connections
Warmbier’s social media accounts show no religious connections.
“Anyone who is detained by the DPRK authorities should not expect the type of investigation and judicial review they would experience in a democracy,” said Pinkston.
Americans detained in North Korea are frequently put on trial and quickly convicted after show trials. They are often released only after famous American politicians, such as former U.S. presidents, or other prominent figures have flown to Pyongyang.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper went to the North Korean capital in November, 2014 for the release of an American who had ripped up his visa on arriving there six months previously.
A Defense Department plane the previous month also had been sent to North Korea to pick up an Ohio road maintenance worker arrested in May, 2014 for leaving behind a Bible during a group tour.
Other foreigners known to be currently held by the North include a Canadian Christian minister arrested last year and serving a life sentence with hard labor for alleged anti-state activities, and an ethnic Korean man interviewed by CNN this month and described as a U.S. citizen.
Approximately 200,000 North Koreans are believed to be imprisoned for their political views or religious beliefs, according to human rights groups.