RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Today, the North Korean government announced that a couple of weeks ago, it had detained a U.S. student from the University of Virginia who was in their country on a tour. For more, we reached NPR'S Elise Hu, who is on the line from Seoul. Good morning.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: And what do we know?
HU: Well, not a whole lot. North Korean state media say the student is Otto Frederick Warmbier. He was in the North and is now being held as he's being investigated. The tour company based out of China says Warmbier was on a New Year's tour to Pyongyang and detained January 2. That's a key date because it's four days before the North's most recent nuclear test. The tour company says Warmbier's family and State Department officials are working to secure his release at this point.
MONTAGNE: And what is, according to that report, this UVA student being accused of?
HU: It's very vague right now. The North is calling it a, quote, "hostile act." The state media report is also quite brief. It has no details of his alleged actions other than to say Warmbier entered the country, quote, "for the purpose of wrecking the foundation of North Korean unity." It also mentions that the act was, quote, "tolerated and manipulated by the U.S. government."
MONTAGNE: Well, this type of detention of Westerners has happened in the past in North Korea. Besides this student, how many others are being held right now?
HU: Well, earlier this month, North Korea actually presented on CNN a man who claimed to be a naturalized American citizen who said he used to live in Fairfax, Va. Besides him, a Canadian pastor was arrested. He was sentenced to life in prison with hard labor at the end of last year.
MONTAGNE: Well, Elise, how does this fit into the larger context of tensions between North Korea and, not just the U.S, but in the international community generally?
HU: Well, this is all happening as the U.S. and South Korea are pushing for a stronger way to isolate and punish North Korea for its latest nuclear test. And, as you mention, North Korea has certainly, in the past, used detainees to initiate diplomatic exchanges with the United States. Recently in 2014, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, went to Pyongyang. He returned with two American prisoners. So this is being seen as North Korea's latest attempt to win some leverage.
MONTAGNE: Elise, thanks.
HU: You bet.
MONTAGNE: Elise Hu is NPR's correspondent in Seoul.
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