An American citizen born in South Korea and believed to be affiliated with a Protestant group has been held captive in North Korea for over a month now, reports acknowledged by the U.S. State Department revealed.
Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old travel agent who specializes in taking tourists and investors around North Korea, was detained in early November, the Citizens' Coalition for the Human Rights of North Korean Refugees in Seoul, South Korea confirmed.
CNN reported that a U.S. official said that Bae is involved with a Protestant religious movement, and there has been no news of him being mistreated.
"We're obviously aware of these reports that a U.S. citizen has been detained in North Korea," Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the State Department in Washington said on Tuesday. "We obviously have no higher priority than the welfare of our citizens."
The New York Times noted that Bae is a naturalized U.S. citizen born in South Korea, and was detained on Nov. 3 after escorting five European tourists through the North Korean city of Rajin. It was not made immediately clear why authorities decided to stop Bae from leaving the country. However, South Korean newspaper Kookmin Ilbo reported that North Korean officers apparently found a computer hard disk in the travel agent's possessions that contained "delicate information" about the isolated Pacific nation.
"The most plausible scenario I can think of is that he took some pictures of the orphans, and the North Korean authorities considered that an act of anti-North Korean propaganda," Do Hee-youn of the Citizen's Coalition said.
A concerning factor in the situations is that the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, and relies on the Swedish Embassy there to intervene on behalf of American citizens.
According to a KOMONews.com report, Bae is a resident of Lynnwood in Washington state. The publication reported that his family declined to offer comment.
Another local Washington publication, Heraldnet.com, spoke with State Rep. Cindy Ryu, a Democrat in the 32nd Legislative District and noted that Bae's name was not familiar to many Koreans in Snohomish County, where Bae lives.
Ryu told the publication that Bae could be presenting himself as a tour director when in actuality he may be a Christian missionary.
"Many of us are third- and fourth-generation Christians and many of our pastors are originally from North Korea," Ryu said. "We want to visit our home country, but in North Korea you cannot say you are a missionary."
An exclusive by NKNews.org, which focuses on news specific to North Korea, reported that Bae is owner of Nations Tour, a company that focuses on tours to the northeast region of North Korea. The Christian Post confirmed that NationsTour.com is registered to Kenneth Bae, but a visit to the website reveals a message that it is "down for maintenance".
On Tuesday, North Korea sent a warning signal to the rest of the world by successfully launching the long-range Unha-3 rocket carrying satellite Kwangmyongsong-3 from the Sohae Space Center in Cholsan County.
"The success of the launch - which most analysts assume is a clandestine missile test - brings North Korea one step closer to demonstrating a viable and reliable long-range delivery vehicle for a nuclear warhead," commented Benjamin Habib, lecturer in Politics and International Relations School of Social Sciences at La Trobe University.
The U.S., Japan, South Korea and other major countries around the world have all condemned the missile launch, saying that it threatens national security.