North Korea has detained a U.S. citizen who lectured at a foreign-funded university in the capital, according to media reports, bringing to three the number of Americans held in the reclusive state amid rising tensions between Pyongyang and Washington.
Tony Kim was arrested Saturday as he prepared to board a flight from Pyongyang to China with his wife after teaching for several weeks at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST)—a school founded by evangelical Christians from abroad and opened in 2010, reports said.
The reason authorities arrested Kim—who also goes by his Korean name Kim Sang-duk—was unclear, but was “not connected in any way with the work of PUST,” Agence France-Presse reported, citing a statement from the school.
PUST employs a large number of foreign staff and typically enrolls the children of North Korea’s elite.
North Korea’s official media has made no mention of Kim’s detention.
The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang—which handles consular affairs for the U.S., as Washington has no ties with Pyongyang—on Sunday acknowledged that a Korean-American citizen was recently detained and said it is “actively involved” in talks concerning the situation, without commenting further.
The U.S. State Department also said it was aware of the report about a U.S. citizen being detained, but refused to comment further, the Associated Press reported.
Kim had previously taught Korean at the Yanbian University of Science and Technology in Yanji, China, which is located near the border with North Korea. The AP quoted a source at Yanbian University as saying Kim resigned last August and had not contacted the school since.
A report by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency said Kim had long been involved with relief activities for children in rural parts of North Korea, and quoted an anonymous source as calling him a “deeply-religious man.”
Two other U.S. citizens are currently serving prison sentences in North Korea, which often releases Americans only after high-profile visits by U.S. officials.
Last year, then-21-year-old University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in prison for stealing propaganda material and for “crimes against the state.”
Korean-American pastor Kim Dong-chul was also sentenced in 2016 to 10 years of hard labor for “espionage.”
The detention of a third American is likely to stoke what are already heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.
Both sides have issued threats of war, and reports suggest the North is preparing for another nuclear test as a U.S. aircraft carrier sails towards the Korean Peninsula in a demonstration of Washington’s might in the region.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will hold a rare briefing for all 100 U.S. senators on the situation in North Korea at the White House on April 26.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.