North Korea Claims It Has U.S. Student In Custody

Jan 22, 2016
Originally published on January 22, 2016 3:48 pm

North Korean state media said Friday that the country has detained a U.S. student from the University of Virginia for "anti-republic activities."

The state-run agency, KCNA, said the student, Otto Frederick Warmbier, entered North Korea as a tourist but "with a goal to wreck the foundation of state unity ... under the manipulation of the U.S. government."

The U.S. Embassy in Seoul said it was aware of the report.

The University of Virginia's website lists an undergraduate with that name at the McIntire School of Commerce, the university's business school.

Reuters reports:

"Gareth Johnson of China-based Young Pioneer Tours confirmed Warmbier was on one of its tours and said he had been detained in North Korea on Jan. 2."

Young Pioneer Tours, which says it is "an adventure tour operator that provides 'budget tours to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from,' " posted this statement on its website:

"We can confirm that the reports that one of our clients is being detained in Pyongyang are true. Their family have been informed and we are in contact with the Swedish Embassy, (who act as the protecting interest for U.S citizens), who are working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to address the case. We are also assisting the U.S Department of State closely with regards to the situation. In the meantime we would appreciate Otto's and his family's privacy being respected and we hope his release can be secured as soon as possible."

Curtis Melvin of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University tells NPR's All Things Considered that an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 Western tourists visit North Korea every year.

"North Koreans prioritize tourism," he says. "But they're sending very mixed signals with how they're treating people and how they expect them to behave."

Many offenses for which tourists are detained "are really acts that would be considered benign or silly in other countries," Melvin says. One American visitor was detained for leaving a Bible in a restaurant, he adds, and another was held for tearing up his tourism visa.

News of the detention came against a backdrop of ongoing diplomatic discussions in the international community about how to deal with North Korea following a nuclear test on Jan. 6.

U.S. envoys are currently in Beijing, Pyongyang's traditional ally, to push China for a response that is not "business as usual," according to U.S. and South Korean officials.

"The objective is very clear," U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said in an interview with NPR. "It is to sharpen the choice faced by Kim Jong Un and the North Korean regime. The choice between continuing their nuclear programs and facing growing isolation and growing economic pain or, on the contrary, making good on promises they made long ago."

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Today, the North Korean government announced that a couple of weeks ago, it had detained a U.S. student from the University of Virginia who was in their country on a tour. For more, we reached NPR'S Elise Hu, who is on the line from Seoul. Good morning.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: And what do we know?

HU: Well, not a whole lot. North Korean state media say the student is Otto Frederick Warmbier. He was in the North and is now being held as he's being investigated. The tour company based out of China says Warmbier was on a New Year's tour to Pyongyang and detained January 2. That's a key date because it's four days before the North's most recent nuclear test. The tour company says Warmbier's family and State Department officials are working to secure his release at this point.

MONTAGNE: And what is, according to that report, this UVA student being accused of?

HU: It's very vague right now. The North is calling it a, quote, "hostile act." The state media report is also quite brief. It has no details of his alleged actions other than to say Warmbier entered the country, quote, "for the purpose of wrecking the foundation of North Korean unity." It also mentions that the act was, quote, "tolerated and manipulated by the U.S. government."

MONTAGNE: Well, this type of detention of Westerners has happened in the past in North Korea. Besides this student, how many others are being held right now?

HU: Well, earlier this month, North Korea actually presented on CNN a man who claimed to be a naturalized American citizen who said he used to live in Fairfax, Va. Besides him, a Canadian pastor was arrested. He was sentenced to life in prison with hard labor at the end of last year.

MONTAGNE: Well, Elise, how does this fit into the larger context of tensions between North Korea and, not just the U.S, but in the international community generally?

HU: Well, this is all happening as the U.S. and South Korea are pushing for a stronger way to isolate and punish North Korea for its latest nuclear test. And, as you mention, North Korea has certainly, in the past, used detainees to initiate diplomatic exchanges with the United States. Recently in 2014, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, went to Pyongyang. He returned with two American prisoners. So this is being seen as North Korea's latest attempt to win some leverage.

MONTAGNE: Elise, thanks.

HU: You bet.

MONTAGNE: Elise Hu is NPR's correspondent in Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.