PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea said today that an American citizen has been detained after confessing to unspecified crimes, confirming news reports about his arrest at a time when Pyongyang is facing criticism from Washington for launching a long-range rocket last week.
The American was identified as Pae Jun Ho in a brief dispatch issued by the state-run Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang. News reports in the U.S. and South Korea said Pae is known in his home state of Washington as Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old tour operator of Korean descent.
An expert said he is likely to become a bargaining chip for the North, an attempt to draw the U.S. into talks. Five other Americans known to have been detained in North Korea since 2009 were all eventually released.
North Korean state media said Pae arrived in the far northeastern city of Rajin on Nov. 3 as part of a tour.
Rajin is part of a special economic zone not far from Yanji, China, that has sought to draw foreign investors and tourists over the past year. Yanji, home to many ethnic Korean Chinese, also serves as a base for Christian groups that shelter North Korean defectors.
“In the process of investigation, evidence proving that he committed a crime against (North Korea) was revealed. He admitted his crime,” the KCNA dispatch said.
The North said the crimes were “proven through evidence” but did not elaborate.
KCNA said consular officials from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang visited Pae today. Sweden represents the United States in diplomatic affairs in North Korea since Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic relations.
Karl-Olof Andersson, Sweden’s ambassador to North Korea, told The Associated Press he could not comment on the case and referred the matter to the U.S. State Department.
The State Department was not immediately able to provide any additional information about the report.
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said on Dec. 11 that Washington was “obviously aware” of reports that a U.S. citizen was detained in North Korea. She didn’t confirm the reports.
In Seoul, the Segye Ilbo newspaper reported last week that Bae had been taking tourists on a five-day trip to the North when he was arrested. The newspaper cited unidentified sources.
News of the arrest comes as North Korea is celebrating the launch of a satellite into space on Dec. 12, in defiance of calls by the U.S. and others to cancel a liftoff widely seen as an illicit test of ballistic missile technology.
The announcement of the American’s detainment could be a signal from the North that it wants dialogue with the United States, said Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea.