CINCINNATI – Officials in North Korea and the U.S. released little information Friday about a university student from Ohio who was detained for what the authoritarian nation called a “hostile act.”
Otto Warmbier is the second person from southwest Ohio to be detained in North Korea in less than two years. A Dayton-area man, Jeffrey Fowle, was held for nearly six months in 2014.
North Korea’s state media said the University of Virginia student entered the country under the guise of a tourist and plotted against North Korean unity with “the tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its manipulation.” The date of his arrest was unclear, as were any details of what he did.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, campaigning in New Hampshire as a Republican presidential candidate, called the arrest “inexcusable.” His Columbus office released a letter he sent to President Barack Obama, urging his Democratic administration to “make every effort to secure Mr. Warmbier’s immediate release and keep (his) family constantly apprised.” Kasich said North Korea should either provide evidence of the alleged anti-state activities or release Warmbier.
The U.S. Department of State said it was “aware of media reports that a U.S. citizen was detained in North Korea.”
A China-based tour company specializing in travel to North Korea, Young Pioneer Tours, confirmed that one of its customers, identified only as Otto, had been detained in Pyongyang, the North’s capital, but provided no other details.
Social media accounts for Warmbier show interests in finance, travel and rap music. Warmbier is majoring in economics with a minor in global sustainability and was on the dean’s list.
A professor at the university’s school of commerce, Jeremy Marcel, called Warmbier “a very intelligent, wonderful young man.” A Theta Chi fraternity brother, Miles Kirwin, added, “He’s an incredible guy.”
An attorney who represented Fowle in 2014 advised caution for those involved with the student. Attorney Timothy Tepe, of Lebanon, said North Korean authorities monitor reports and comments about detainees.
Fowle said on Friday he was “surprised and disheartened” to learn of Warmbier’s detainment. He said he was considering reaching out to Warmbier’s relatives. He said he’d want them to know he was treated “reasonably well” while detained, was kept in decent quarters and had three meals a day.
“So physically, it should be all right,” Fowle said. “It’s just emotional and mental stress that everybody’s going through is the big thing to worry about.”
Fowle, of Miamisburg, said in 2014 he had left a Bible in a North Korean nightclub in hopes it would reach underground Christians. Back home, the married father of three said he’s doing well now.
North Korea’s announcement Friday comes amid a diplomatic push by Washington, Seoul and their allies to slap Pyongyang with tough sanctions for a recent nuclear test. North Korea has occasionally announced the arrests of foreign detainees in times of tension with the outside world in an apparent attempt to wrest concessions or diplomatic maneuvering room.
North Korea also regularly accuses Washington and Seoul of sending spies to overthrow its government to enable the U.S.-backed South Korean government to control the Korean Peninsula. Some foreigners previously arrested have read statements of guilt they later said were coerced.
A few thousand Westerners visit North Korea each year, and Pyongyang is pushing for more tourists as a way to help its dismal economy. The U.S. Department of State has warned against travel to the North, however, and visitors, especially those from America, who break the country’s sometimes murky rules risk detention, arrest and possible jail sentences.
North Korea has previously released or deported U.S. detainees after high-profile Americans visited the country. Critics say such trips have provided diplomatic credibility to the North.
The Korean Peninsula remains in a technical state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. About 28,500 American troops are stationed in South Korea.