SEOUL/SEATTLE (Reuters) - A Korean-American tourist who visited North Korea last month for what was to have been a five-day trip has been detained by police in the reclusive state, South Korean media reported on Thursday.
Kenneth Bae, 44, was in a group of five tourists who visited the northeast city of Rajin, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said, citing a report by the newspaper Kookmin Ilbo. Bae entered North Korea on November 3 for a five-day visit, South Korean media reported.
CNN said Bae was part of a Protestant religious group in the United States. Washington does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea. U.S. interests are looked after by the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang.
U.S. citizens of Korean descent have previously run into trouble in the North. Robert Park, a missionary, was detained after entering the country in late 2009 and says he was tortured for protesting the country’s human rights record.
Earlier that year, former U.S. President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to secure the release of two American journalists who had entered North Korea illegally.
The U.S. State Department declined to comment on the reports that Bae had been detained by North Korean authorities.
“I don’t have anything for you on that one way or the other, for privacy reasons,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.
A pastor at a Korean church in Washington state, who said Bae’s mother attended services there, said the mother, Myung Bae, had prayed for her son’s release on Wednesday morning after learning of his detention from news reports.
“She just learned that he had been detained,” pastor Chan Song of the Korean Emmanuel Church in the Seattle suburb of Lynnwood told Reuters. “She’s scared. ... She doesn’t know how he was detained.”
Bae’s mother has attended the 6 a.m. Korean Emmanuel prayer group for several years, the pastor said, but her son was not a member of the church. Efforts to contact the mother at her Washington state home were unsuccessful.
The office of state Senator Paull Shin, a Korean-American whose district includes parts of Lynnwood, was “trying to find out more information” about the situation but was not in contact with the family, legislative assistant Jeff King told Reuters.
North Korea on Wednesday sparked calls for sanctions from Washington and others when it fired a long-range rocket that put a satellite into space.
Critics say the North is breaching U.N. Security Council resolutions that prohibit it from activities linked to nuclear development or missile technology.
Reporting by David Chance in Seoul, Andrew Quinn in Washington and Laura L. Myers in Washington state; Writing by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney