North Korea detains fourth American citizen amid heightened diplomatic tensions

The U.S. State Department says it is aware of the latest reported detention.

North Korea detains another American citizen
A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the Permanent Mission of North Korea in Geneva October 2, 2014. Reuters

North Korea said on Sunday that it has detained another U.S. citizen on suspicion of "hostile acts" against the state as tensions rise between Pyongyang and Washington. This is the fourth American to be held in custody by the isolated country.

In the past decade, the North has arrested and jailed several US citizens. It often releases them only after high-profile visits by current or former US officials or former US presidents.

The North's KCNA news agency reported Kim Hak Song, who worked for the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, was detained on Saturday. "A relevant institution of the DPRK detained American citizen Kim Hak Song on May 6 under a law of the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea ) on suspension of his hostile acts against it," KCNA said.

According to the North's official media, a third U.S. citizen, Kim Sang Dok, who was associated with the same school, was detained in late April for hostile acts. The U.S. State Department said it is aware of the latest reported detention.

In an emailed statement, a State Department official said: "The security of U.S. citizens is one of the department's highest priorities. When a U.S. citizen is reported to be detained in North Korea, we work with the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang." However, the official declined to provide further details for privacy reasons.

This recent detention comes amid rising diplomatic tensions on the Korean peninsula, driven by harsh rhetoric from Pyongyang and Washington over the North's pursuit of nuclear weapons in response to what it says is a threat of U.S.-instigated war.

The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) was founded by evangelical Christians and opened in 2010. Its students are generally children of the country's elite.

The volunteer faculty of PUST, many of whom are evangelical Christians, has a curriculum that includes subjects once considered taboo in North Korea, such as capitalism. The college is an unlikely fit in a country that has been condemned by the United States for cracking down on freedom of religion.

The university's co-founder Chan-Mo Park said Kim, who manages the school's experimental farm at the college of agriculture and life sciences, was detained on route by train from Pyongyang to China's border town of Dandong. Park declined to comment further.

According to a message by Kim Hak Song dated February 2015 on the website of a Korean-Brazilian church in Sao Paulo, Kim was a Christian missionary planning to start an experimental farm at PUST and was trying to help the North Korean people learn to become self-sufficient.

However, no further details have been revealed about the circumstances related to the arrests of the two men associated with the college. A spokesman for PUST was not immediately available for comment.

The other two Americans who are already held in North Korea are Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old student, and Kim Dong Chul, a 62-year-old Korean-American missionary.

Warmbier was detained in January 2016 and sentenced to 15 years hard labour for attempting to steal a propaganda banner. Exactly, two months later, Kim Dong Chul was sentenced to 10 years hard labour for subversion. Neither has appeared in public since being sentenced.