WASHINGTON (AFP) ― The U.S. State Department has confirmed an American is being held in North Korea, though declined to identify the individual as it called for the detainee’s release on humanitarian grounds.
Swedish officials, who represent the U.S. in the absence of diplomatic ties between Pyongyang and Washington, “have been able to visit” the detained individual, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Tuesday.
Officials did not say when the American was detained, but a Seoul-based Christian activist told AFP that the individual was the man who had entered the North on a business visa and was detained last November, immediately after the North’s deadly shelling of a South Korean island.
Toner declined to identify the detainee on the grounds that the U.S. government has not obtained a waiver of privacy from either the detainee or the person’s family.
“I don’t have any details on what this individual was doing in North Korea, but we would call on the government of North Korea to release this citizen on humanitarian grounds,” the spokesman said.
“And we would ask that they respect and treat this citizen in a manner consistent with international human rights law,” he added.
A State Department official told reporters on the condition of anonymity that the individual had “crossed a border” but did not elaborate.
The man would be the fifth U.S. citizen to be held in North Korea in the past two years.
Among the detainees was Christian missionary Robert Park who was detained on Christmas Day 2009, after walking across the border to make a one-man protest about human rights violations.
Park was freed in February 2010 after the communist state said he expressed “sincere repentance” for his actions and had been misled by Western propaganda.
On Jan. 25, 2010, the North detained Aijalon Mahli Gomes for crossing the border illegally and sentenced him to eight years’ hard labor.
Gomes was said to be a devout Christian but his motive for entering North Korea remains unclear. When living in South Korea as an English teacher, he had joined rallies denouncing the North’s human rights record.
Gomes was freed last August after former U.S. President Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang to intercede.
Carter is due to visit the North again soon, reportedly late this month.
In August 2009 former U.S. president Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to secure the release of U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were seized after crossing the border in March 2009 during a reporting assignment.
They had been sentenced to 12 years’ hard labor.