American from North Korean University Detained in Pyongyang

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The wife of a U.S. citizen who worked at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) and was detained from leaving North Korea this weekend pleaded for his immediate release.

Kim Hak Song was arrested Saturday “on suspicion of his hostile acts against [the state],” North Korea’s state-run news agency KCNA reported Sunday.

“A relevant institution is now conducting detailed investigation into his crimes,” the report said, providing no further details.

Following Kim’s arrest, PUST released a statement that appeared to distance itself from him, saying “We understand that this detention is related to an investigation into matters that are not connected in any way with the work of PUST.”

The school employs a substantial number of foreign staff, and Kim’s detention comes as tensions increase between Pyongyang and Washington over North Korea’s nuclear weapons.  

Speaking to the VOA Korean Service on Sunday, Kim’s wife, Kim Mi Ok, said he was arrested by the North Korean authorities as he tried to board a train in Pyongyang to go to their home in Dandong, China. She said PUST told her over the phone that Kim had hopped on the train. But Kim never arrived.

 “I went to greet him at the Dandong station, and I waited until the last person to get off the train, but he was nowhere to be seen,” said Kim’s wife, who is one of some 2 million ethnic Koreans born in China.

 She learned the news a day after Kim’s detention during another call with PUST, where her husband has been involved in agricultural development work at the university’s experimental farm since 2014, she said. Kim was working toward establishing an organic fermentation fertilizer plant, she added. PUST is the only privately funded university in North Korea,

 Kim, who is an agricultural expert,  wanted to help North Korea alleviate food insecurity by supplying new agricultural technology, his wife told VOA. “So I have no idea why they detained him,” she said.

An ethnic Korean born in China in 1963, Kim studied agriculture at a Chinese university, but later studied theology in Los Angeles, California, between 1995 and 2005. Kim became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement “the security of U.S. citizens is one of the department’s highest priorities,” and it will work with the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which represents American interests in the North, to try to secure their freedom. VOA confirmed with Martina Åberg Somogyi of the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang that another American citizen was detained.

With Kim, North Korea is now detaining four U.S. nationals.

Tony Kim – or Kim Sang Dok – also a PUST staffer was arrested on April 22 at an airport in Pyongyang for “hostile acts” toward the regime.

Korean-American Kim Dong Chul is serving 10 years on espionage charges and Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student from Ohio, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in 2016 for removing a propaganda poster.

Analysts say North Korea often attempts to use foreign detainees to wrest outside concessions, which in the past have sometimes involved high-profile American missions sent to secure the release of detainees.

 Jenny Lee contributed to this report which originated with VOA Korean Service.

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