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

A uniformed tour guide gestures to tourists outside the War Museum in Pyongyang. U.S. citizens can visit North Korea as tourists.
Ed Jones
AFP/Getty Images
A uniformed tour guide gestures to tourists outside the War Museum in Pyongyang. U.S. citizens can visit North Korea as tourists.

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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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