World

American student held in North Korea after tour

Hong Kong: An American student who is being detained by North Korea did nothing obvious during a five-day trip to the country that would have angered the authorities, a member of his tour group said on Saturday.

The student, Otto F. Warmbier of the University of Virginia, was being held for an unspecified "hostile act" against North Korea with the goal of "bringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity", North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency said on Friday.

Small American flags fly in front of the Warmbier family home in Wyoming, Ohio, after Otto Warmbier's detention.
Small American flags fly in front of the Warmbier family home in Wyoming, Ohio, after Otto Warmbier's detention.  Photo: AP

Mr Warmbier's detention at the airport in Pyongyang as the tour group was leaving the country on January 2 came as a surprise, said one member of the group who asked not to be named because of the delicacy of the case.

While foreigners accused of "anti-state" activities, illegal entry or spreading religion have been detained in North Korea in the past, there were no signs of such behavior by Mr Warmbier, the tour group member said.

North Korean military personnel clap hands in a rally, after North Korea said it had conducted a hydrogen bomb test ...
North Korean military personnel clap hands in a rally, after North Korea said it had conducted a hydrogen bomb test earlier this month. Photo: AP

"He seemed like a normal college kid looking to see the world," the group member said. "Like the rest of us he had this curiosity about North Korea. I never heard him talk about religion. I never heard him speak ill of the North Korean government."

The China-based tour company, Young Pioneer Tours, said Saturday that there had been an "incident", but gave few details. Mr Warmbier was the last person from the group to go through customs, and a guide was told by officials that he was taken to a Pyongyang hospital, the company said.

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Gareth Johnson, Young Pioneer's British chief executive, remained in North Korea after Mr Warmbier's detention. "It was during this time that it was discovered that there had been an incident," the company said. "Gareth remained in Pyongyang for a few days and when it became apparent that nothing would be achieved in country, he returned to China."

Mr Johnson declined to comment further on Saturday.

A US Air Force B-52 bomber flies over Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, on  January 10, in a show of force after ...
A US Air Force B-52 bomber flies over Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, on January 10, in a show of force after North Korea's bomb test.  Photo: AP

Mr Warmbier is an honours student from Cincinnati studying economics and global sustainability, according to a classmate and social media profiles. He is a member of the Theta Chi fraternity, and his Facebook page includes photographs of him on a trip to Cuba last year and at a climate change protest in New York in 2014.

The US State Department said on Friday that it was aware of reports of the detention of an American citizen.

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Photo: AP

"The welfare of US citizens is one of the department's highest priorities," said Mark Toner, a deputy spokesman at the State Department. "In cases where US 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."

Governor John Kasich of Ohio, a Republican running for president, said in a statement that Mr Warmbier's arrest was "inexcusable", adding that "he should be released and returned immediately."

South Koreans at Seoul Railway Station watch a TV news program showing North Korea's announcement of its bomb test ...
South Koreans at Seoul Railway Station watch a TV news program showing North Korea's announcement of its bomb test earlier this month. Photo: AP

The detention happened just days before North Korea's fourth nuclear test on January 6, which prompted new discussions of sanctions by the United States and its allies.

US citizens in North Korea have sometimes been used as a tool to put pressure on the US government, analysts say, with North Korea forcing visits by high-level officials or former leaders to secure the release of the detainees.

James Clapper, director of national intelligence, went to North Korea in November 2014 to gain the release of two Americans. He returned with Kenneth Bae, then a 46-year-old Korean-American missionary, who had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labour after North Korea convicted him of proselytising, and Matthew Todd Miller, a 25-year-old American who was charged with "unruly behaviour" after he tore up his passport and for trying to infiltrate the country's prison camps.

Former president Jimmy Carter travelled to North Korea to win the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, an American accused of illegally entering the country in 2010, and former president Bill Clinton went to North Korea to secure the release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee in 2009.

New York Times