“We are of course aware of the reports that a U.S. citizen was detained in North Korea,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. “As you all know, there's no greater priority to us than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens.”
The state-run Korean Central News Agency on Friday said that the government had “put in custody American Miller Matthew Todd, 24, on April 10 for his rash behavior in the course of going through formalities for entry into the DPRK to tour it.”
According to the statement posted on the agency’s website Todd sought asylum in North Korea.
“He had a tourist visa for the DPRK, but tore it to pieces and shouted hoarse that ‘he would seek asylum’ and ‘he came to the DPRK after choosing it as a shelter.’ This was a gross violation of its legal order,” said the statement. “The relevant organ put him in custody after taking a serious note of his behavior, and is now investigating the case.”
Psaki said Friday that the U.S. was “in touch with the embassy of Sweden,” which repesents U.S. interests in North Korea.
Psaki sidestepped questions about whether the administration was skeptical of claims that Todd was seeking asylum.
“You're all familiar with our views of North Korea's human rights record,” she said.
The reports of a detained American though will likely worsen tensions between the U.S. and North Korea amid growing concerns that Pyongyang will attempt another nuclear test.
President Obama in South Korea on Friday, his second stop on a four-nation tour of Asia, said that the international community should weigh sanctions “with more bite” to ramp up pressure on the rogue state.
“It's important for us to look at additional ways to apply pressure on North Korea, further sanctions that have even more bite, as well as highlighting some of the human rights violations that make North Korea probably the worst human rights violator in the world,” said Obama.
South Korean officials said they had observed increased activity at one of the North’s nuclear sites leading to worries that Pyongyang would detonate another nuclear bomb or conduct missile tests.
Another American citizen, Kenneth Bae, has been detained in North Korea since 2012. He was convicted of trying to overthrow the regime -- charges that the U.S. and human rights groups say are false.