On January 2, North Korean officials arrested Otto Frederick Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia student, at Pyongyang airport just before his flight back to China. Warmbier had entered the country five days prior for a New Year’s trip with a Chinese travel company, Young Pioneer Tours. Korean officials released a short statement saying, “Warmbier Otto Frederick, student of Virginia University in the United States, was caught committing a hostile act against North Korea after entering the country as a tourist. He aimed to destroy the country’s unity under the US government’s acquiescence and control.” They did not elaborate on the nature of the “hostile act.”
Gareth Johnson, a spokesman for Young Pioneer Tours, told Reuters the company is “in touch with Otto’s family, the U.S. State Department and the Embassy of Sweden in Pyongyang and doing all we can to secure his release.” (The Swedes handle American diplomatic efforts in the DPRK, since the U.S. has no embassy there.)
Warmbier is the third Western citizen to be held in North Korea under Kim Jong-un’s regime. In October North Korean officials released Joo Won-moon, an NYU student who was held for more than five months, and last week CNN interviewed a man who claims to be a U.S. citizen arrested by North Korea for spying. Although the Department of State strongly recommends against travel to North Korea, there is no outright ban, and Young Pioneer routinely brings in Americans from China.
Warmbier’s arrest comes after North Korea tested what might or might not be a hydrogen bomb. The U.S. and South Korea were understandably peeved, with the latter calling for “bone-numbing sanctions” against its northern neighbor. So far South Korea has contented itself with blasting K-pop over its northern border, and Warmbier’s arrest might be used as a bargaining chip to stave off further repercussions.