TOKYO North Korea may have detained an elderly U.S. man last month who entered the country on a tourist visa, Kyodo News Service said on Wednesday, citing an unnamed diplomatic source.
Kyodo, in a report from Beijing, said the possible detention could become another diplomatic bargaining chip for North Korea, which has held Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American Christian missionary, since November 2012. Bae has been sentenced by the Pyongyang regime to 15 years of hard labour.
The U.S. State Department echoed U.S. embassy officials in Beijing and Seoul who said they were aware of the reports but could not confirm them.
North Korea claims the man, who apparently is not of Korean descent, has broken the law, according to Kyodo. The man entered North Korea for sightseeing last month with a valid visa, Kyodo quoted the diplomatic source as saying.
Nolan Barkhouse, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Beijing, said: "We are aware of reports that a U.S. citizen was detained in North Korea, but we have no additional information to share at this time."
He urged Americans to read a State Department warning that "recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea." That warning says that "U.S. citizens crossing into North Korea, even accidentally, have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala said the department is "in regular, close coordination with representatives of the Embassy of Sweden," in Pyongyang, which "acts as our protecting power for issues involving U.S. citizens in North Korea."
North Korea said on November 7 that it had arrested a South Korean spy, but has not provided any more details. It has not made any statement about the apparent new arrest.
In Seoul, local media said the South Korean man arrested in North Korea as a "spy" was an elderly missionary.
"The South Korean that North Korea claims to be a South Korean spy turned out to be 50-year-old missionary named Kim Jeong-wook," the Donga Ilbo newspaper said on its website, citing Kim's family in South Korea and unnamed sources in China.
A U.S. embassy official in Seoul, who spoke on condition of anonymity said he believed the two cases were separate.
U.S. missionaries of Korean descent have a long history of getting into trouble in North Korea and have required high profile figures such as former President Bill Clinton to secure their release.
In his visit, Bae brought in what the North said were "propaganda materials" aimed at overthrowing the state. An attempt by U.S. North Korean rights envoy Robert King to secure Bae's release in August was rejected by Pyongyang.
Tensions between the United States and North Korea rose sharply earlier this year after Pyongyang threatened to fire missiles at the United States in response to what it said were provocative military manoeuvres staged by Seoul and Washington as a prelude to an attack on the North.
Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic relations and the Swedish Embassy in North Korea, which handles issues dealing with U.S. citizens, declined to comment on the latest arrest reports when contacted by Reuters.
(Reporting by William Mallard in TOKYO, Megha Rajagopalan in BEIJING; Jumin Park and James Pearson in SEOUL, Arshad Mohammed and Susan Heavey in WASHINGTON; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnana and Vicki Allen)
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