North Korea says it is holding U.S. university student for ‘hostile act’

Small American flags have been placed in the trees outside the Warmbier family home in Wyoming, Ohio.

Small American flags have been placed in the trees outside the Warmbier family home in Wyoming, Ohio.

(Gary Landers / Associated Press)

North Korea on Friday announced the arrest of a university student from Ohio accused of posing as a tourist to commit a “hostile act” against the reclusive nation.

News of the University of Virginia student’s detention came at a time of heightened tension between North Korea and the United States, which has been working with allies in the region to increase international sanctions against the country over the government’s claims to have carried out its fourth nuclear test this month.

The official Korea Central News Agency identified the detainee as Otto Frederick Warmbier, who it claimed entered the country with the intention of “bringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity at the tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its manipulation.”

A China-based tour operator, Young Pioneer Tours, confirmed that one of its clients had been detained in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. The company said it was in touch with the man’s family, the U.S. State Department and the Swedish Embassy, which handles consular affairs for American citizens in North Korea because Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic ties.

The State Department issued a statement saying it was aware of the reports but had no further information to share, citing privacy considerations.


North Korea has in the past appeared to use foreign detainees as leverage against the U.S. and its allies, which it regularly accuses of plotting to overthrow the government of Kim Jong Un.

Less than a week after carrying out the latest test, authorities in Pyongyang gave CNN access to Kim Dong-chul, who described himself as a naturalized U.S. citizen detained on suspicion of spying for South Korea.

In December, a South Korean-born Canadian pastor, the Rev. Lim Hyeon-soo, was sentenced to life in prison with hard labor on charges that included using religion to try to destroy North Korea’s system of government.

Pyongyang is also believed to be holding at least three South Koreans.

Warmbier was in North Korea for a five-day New Year’s trip and was detained at Pyongyang airport on Jan. 2, four days before the nuclear test, the Reuters news agency reported, citing an official at Young Pioneer Tours.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican presidential candidate, called the arrest “inexcusable.” “He should be released & returned immediately,” Kasich said in a message posted on his Twitter account.

Warmbier attended high school in Wyoming, a suburb of Cincinnati, and was the salutatorian of his graduating class in 2013, said Susanna Max, spokeswoman for Wyoming City Schools.

He is now a third-year commerce student at the University of Virginia and a member of the school’s selective Echols Scholars Program, the university newspaper the Cavalier Daily reported.

Warmbier also served on the Student Council Sustainability Committee, helped manage the Alternative Investment Fund’s $20,000 portfolio and is a member of the Theta Chi fraternity, according to his profile on the professional networking site LinkedIn. His interests are listed as running, rap music, travel, vintage clothing and sustainability.

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