Washington is concerned about the recent detention of a fourth U.S. citizen in North Korea and is working with the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang to resolve the issue, White House Spokesperson Sean Spicer said at a regular press briefing in the U.S. capital on Monday.
“Obviously this is concerning, we’re well aware of it and we’re going to work through the embassy of Sweden, that has an embassy in North Korea, through our State Department to seek release of the individuals there,” Spicer told assembled reporters.
The North Korean authorities detained a U.S. citizen called Kim Hak-song on Saturday. He has been linked to the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), though the reasons for his detention are currently unclear.
According to Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) report issued on Sunday, Kim is under suspicion of committing “hostile acts” against the DPRK, though the article did not elaborate further.
“This detention (which unusually NK decided to publicize) … is designed to do a few things. First, it broadcasts to the country that North Korea is under threat. Spies are everywhere and people need to be vigilant. This raises tension inside the regime, which fosters support for the leadership,” Ken Gause, a North Korea leadership specialist at the CNA Corporation, told NK News.
“Second, it portrays North Korea as the victim, which Pyongyang can use to counter the narrative in the international media of the North being the aggressor and the party in the wrong. Finally, detaining an American citizen both limits possible U.S. military escalation and can possibly be used to leverage negotiations if Pyongyang wants to open a diplomatic channel to the U.S.”
PUST declined to comment on the reasons for Kim’s detention, saying only that they were unrelated to the university in a statement on Monday.
“During that visit, Mr Kim was at PUST to do agricultural development work with PUST’s experimental farm,” the statement reads. “We understand that this detention is related to an investigation into matters that are not connected in any way with the work of PUST. Therefore, we cannot comment on anything that Mr Haksong Kim is alleged to have done,” a university statement said.
“Life on campus and the teaching at PUST is continuing as normal for the Spring semester.”
The arrest is the second of an American citizen by North Korea in two weeks. On April 22, DPRK authorities detained another PUST faculty member, a professor of marketing and accounting named Tony Kim, who is also accused of “criminal acts of hostility”.
North Korea now holds four U.S. citizens in detention.
Edited by Oliver Hotham