North Korea said it had detained an American tourist for violating its laws after entering the secretive state in April, bringing the number of U.S. citizens held by Pyongyang to three.
Pyongyang has held a number of U.S. citizens in the past, using them as a tool to extract visits by high-profile figures, including former President Bill Clinton, but it has recently rejected visits by officials to discuss their cases.
North Korea periodically accuses the United States of military hostility and conspiracy to overthrow its leadership. The two states have been locked in a tense diplomatic conflict over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.
The latest American to be held was being questioned by authorities for conduct inappropriate for the purpose of his visit as a tourist, state media reported on Friday.
The North’s KCNA news agency named him as Jeffrey Edward Fowle and said he entered the country on April 29. It gave no further details.
U.S. media reported that Fowle is 56 years old and from Miamisburg, Ohio, and worked in the Moraine city street department. A neighbour speaking on WDTN television in Ohio said he is a father of three who was travelling alone on the trip.
Calls to Fowle’s family and his lawyer were not answered.
Japan’s Kyodo news agency cited unidentified diplomatic sources on Friday as saying the North had detained a U.S. citizen in mid-May, and that the American was detained just before he was to leave North Korea, allegedly for having left a Bible in his hotel.
The Associated Press quoted Timothy Tepe, a lawyer acting as a spokesman for the family, as saying Fowle was not on a mission for his church and went to North Korea as a tourist.
A State Department official said Washington was aware of reports that a third U.S. citizen had been detained in North Korea. “There is no greater priority for us than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad,” the official said, adding no further information was available.
War veteran released
Two other Americans are currently being held by North Korea, both arrested after arriving on tourist visas and accused of crimes against the state. Korean American missionary Kenneth Bae has been in custody for 18 months and a second man has been held since April.
In May, the U.S. State Department issued an advisory urging Americans not to travel to North Korea because of the “risk of arbitrary arrest and detention” even while holding valid visas.
“Foreign visitors to North Korea may be arrested, detained, or expelled for activities that would not be considered criminal outside North Korea,” it said.
North Korea has detained and then released other Americans in the past year, including Korean War veteran Merrill E. Newman, whom it expelled after holding him for more than a month accusing him of war crimes.
In April, the North said it was holding an American named Matthew Todd Miller who had made “a gross violation of its legal order” after entering the country on a tourist visa.
He tore up his visa and demanded asylum, KCNA said in April.
Bae was arrested in 2012 and has been sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour on charges of state subversion. His family says he suffers from a variety of health issues, including diabetes, an enlarged heart, kidney stones and severe back pain.
North Korea has twice cancelled visits by Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, to discuss Bae’s case.
The United States has no diplomatic ties with North Korea and the interests of its citizens in the country are represented by Sweden, which has an embassy in Pyongyang. (Additional reporting by Ju-min Park and Curtis Skinner; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Tony Munroe and Paul Tait)