North Korea has detained a U.S. citizen, potentially raising tensions

North Korean soldiers attend the opening of the Ryomyong residential area, while in the background, portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are seen, on April 13, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea.
(Wong Maye-E / AP)

North Korean authorities have reportedly detained a U.S. citizen, raising the total number of Americans known to be held in North Korea to three and potentially deepening animosities between Washington and Pyongyang at an already tense moment.

North Korean officials detained Tony Kim, an academic who also goes by his Korean name Kim Sang-duk, as he was trying to leave the country from Pyongyang’s international airport on Saturday, Park Chan-mo, chancellor of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, told the Associated Press.

Park said Kim, who is 58, taught accounting at the university for about a month. The reason for his detention was unclear.


South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, which first reported the incident on Sunday, said Kim is a former professor at the Yanbian University of Science and Technology, a research university in China’s Jilin province, which borders North Korea.

The agency said that South Korea’s national intelligence agency was unaware of the detention.

Martina Aberg, deputy head of mission for the Swedish Embassy in North Korea, confirmed the detention to CNN on Sunday. “We have been informed and can confirm that there has been a detention of a U.S. citizen Saturday morning local,” she said. “He was prevented from getting on the flight out of Pyongyang. We don’t comment further than this.”

In the absence of a U.S. embassy in North Korea, Sweden handles consular matters involving U.S. citizens there.

The State Department issued a statement Sunday saying it was “aware of reports that a U.S. citizen was detained in North Korea,” and that it was working with the Swedish Embassy. “Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment,” the statement said.

North Korea is working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the U.S., and analysts say it could soon conduct its sixth-ever nuclear test. The U.S., in response to rising tensions, has dispatched the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson toward the Korean peninsula. It is expected to arrive later this week.


Previously, the Trump administration had said the naval strike group led by the Vinson was headed to North Korea when it was, at the time, headed in the opposite direction.

North Korean state media said on Sunday that the country is ready to “sink” the Carl Vinson “with a single strike.” On Friday, it said it would launch a nuclear strike against Australia if it doesn’t stop “blindly and zealously toeing the U.S. line.”

More than 10 U.S. citizens have been detained in North Korea since 2009, according to Yonhap. Two remain in the country; others have been released after visits to Pyongyang by prominent Americans.

American student Otto Warmbier at North Korea's Supreme Court on March 16, 2016, in Pyongyang, North Korea.
(Jon Chol Jin / AP)

In March, 2016, North Korea sentenced Otto Warmbier, 22, a University of Virginia student, to 15 years of labor for attempting to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel. He had been in North Korea as a tourist, on a five-day visit.

North Korean state media accused him of entering the country with the intent of “bringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity.”

The following month, North Korea sentenced Kim Dong Chul, 62, a South Korean-born naturalized American citizen, to 10 years’ hard labor for espionage.

A Canadian pastor, Hyeon Soo Lim, has also been held in the country since early 2015.

Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.

For more news from Asia, follow @JRKaiman on Twitter


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5:15 p.m.: This article was updated with the full name of the person detained and other details.

This article was originally published at 9 a.m.