North Korea confirmed on Thursday it was holding an American citizen for allegedly committing a crime against the secretive state, amid media reports that he was a businessman from California doing missionary work.
Jun Young Su has been held since November last year, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said. The report did not state what crime he was accused of, but South Korean media have reported an American was detained for spreading Christianity. He is the latest of several U.S. citizens to be detained in the communist state in recent years.
North Korea informed Washington of the detention and Jun has been given access to Swedish Embassy officials in Pyongyang, the news agency said.
Earlier this week, the U.S. State Department called for North Korea to release one of its citizens and said Swedish officials had visited the American. But it gave no further details, saying the individual had not signed a privacy waiver that would allow the government to share information.
The U.S. — which fought on South Korea's side during the 1950-53 Korean War — doesn't have diplomatic staff inside North Korea and Sweden handles Washington's interests there.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported Thursday that a Korean-American with business interests in North Korea was being detained on allegations of Christian proselytizing. Yonhap, citing the Korean Christian community in the United States, said the man is in his 60s, attends a Korean church in Orange County, Calif., and has a North Korean visa.
Officially, North Korea guarantees freedom of religion. In practice, however, authorities crack down on Christians, who are seen as a Western-influenced threat to the government. The distribution of Bibles and secret prayer services can mean banishment to a labor camp or execution, defectors from the country have said.
Several Americans have been detained in North Korea in recent years and freeing them often requires high-profile negotiations.
In August, former President Jimmy Carter brought home Aijalon Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years' hard labor for crossing into the North from China. He was detained for seven months in all.
Korean-American missionary Robert Park defiantly walked into North Korea on Christmas Day in 2009 to draw attention to the North's alleged human rights abuses and to call for the resignation of leader Kim Jong Il. He was released weeks later without charge.
Also in 2009, journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested for trespassing and released only after former President Bill Clinton made a trip to Pyongyang to ask for their freedom.
The latest arrest came as Carter plans to travel to Pyongyang again as early as this month.
Carter said last week that he plans to focus on trying to revive international disarmament talks on the North's nuclear program and seek ways to help with the country's humanitarian woes.
He could be called on again to help with Jun's return home.
Easing tensionsWhile Carter has at times played a diplomatic role since he left the White House in 1981, the State Department has stressed that he was not on an official U.S. government mission to the North.
The North appears to want to use the latest detention to improve ties with the United States, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies. Still, given that the country usually releases detainees after indicting and sentencing them, there may not be sufficient time for Carter to bring Jun home during the upcoming visit, Yang said.
Tensions have eased between the two Koreas after rising to their highest level in years in 2010 following two deadly attacks on the peninsula that killed a total of 50 South Koreans.
In between the attacks, Pyongyang revealed a uranium enrichment program, opening a second route to make nuclear weapons along with its plutonium program.
The North has since said it wants to restart stalled nuclear disarmament talks, but Seoul and Washington have said they do not trust Pyongyang and that its leadership must first show it is sincere about denuclearizing.
South Korean media say Carter will be accompanied by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, former Irish president Mary Robinson and former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. They will visit North Korea for three days from April 26.
The group is also expected discuss the North's food shortages, amid calls by U.N. agencies for international food aid.