North Korea has reportedly arrested a US citizen as he was trying to fly out of the country, making him the third American national incarcerated in the country over the past year.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency cited sources as saying on Sunday that the man, identified only by his surname Kim, was arrested at Pyongyang International Airport on Friday while he was leaving the country.
Kim, aged in his late 50s, was a former professor at China’s Yanbian University of Science and Technology and was in North Korea for about a month to discuss relief activities, Yonhap said.
The reason for the arrest is still unclear, with the US State Department saying there was no official confirmation of the arrest.
“We are aware of reports that a US citizen was detained in North Korea,” a State Department official said.
“In cases where US citizens are reported to be detained in North Korea, we work with the Swedish embassy, which serves as the United States’ Protecting Power in North Korea. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment,” the official said.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service as well as the unification and foreign ministries said they could not confirm the report.
However, the director of a group called the World North Korea Research Center in Seoul said his sources in Pyongyang had confirmed the arrest.
The news comes at a tense time in relations between Pyongyang and Washington.
US President Donald Trump has urged China to pressure North Korea to curb its nuclear and missile programs.
Last week, US Vice President Mike Pence warned that “all options are on the table” to curb Pyongyang ‘s nuclear programs amid speculations that the North may be planning a new atomic test.
Pyongyang continues to pursue its military nuclear program, which it says acts as deterrence against a potential invasion by its adversaries, the US in particular.
Washington, for its part, maintains permanent US bases in allied countries Japan and South Korea, regularly holding joint military exercises with their forces.
At present, two other US citizens — college student Otto Warmbier and Korean-American pastor Kim Dong-Chul — are detained in North Korea after they were served long jail terms.
Last year, the pastor Kim was sentenced last year to 10 years of hard labor for spying and Warmbier was jailed for 15 years for stealing a propaganda sign and for “crimes against the state.”
Over the past decade, North Korea has arrested and jailed several US citizens and later released them following high-profile visits by current or former US officials.