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Swedish Envoy: US Detainees in North Korea ‘High on Agenda’


FILE - A man who identified himself as Kim Dong Chul, a naturalized American citizen, was arrested in North Korea in October. He attends a news conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this undated photo.

FILE - A man who identified himself as Kim Dong Chul, a naturalized American citizen, was arrested in North Korea in October. He attends a news conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this undated photo.

With the denial of consular access to two U.S. citizens detained in North Korea continuing for months, the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which acts on behalf of the United States, said it is making all-out efforts to accelerate their safe return home.

Torkel Stiernlöf, Swedish ambassador to Pyongyang, told VOA this week the communist state’s detention of American citizens is one of the embassy’s primary concerns.

“We are constantly working almost on a daily basis with these cases,” Stiernlöf said. “It’s really high on our agenda.”

The detainees

Over the past year, North Korea locked up two American citizens for crimes against the state. One of the detainees is Kim Dong Chul, a South Korean-born U.S. citizen who was seized in the city of Rason on the northeast tip of North Korea in October 2015. The former Virginia resident was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in April on charges of espionage and stealing state secrets. Kim has reportedly not been allowed consular access since his arrest.

Kim’s sentence came on the heels of a 15-year sentence given to Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student suspected of stealing a propaganda poster from a North Korean hotel. Just over a month after Warmbier’s arrest in early January, the reclusive regime released a video of him apologizing for committing “the crime of taking down a political slogan from the staff holding area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel.”

FILE - Otto Frederick Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, has been detained in North Korea since early January, is taken to North Korea's top court in Pyongyang, North Korea, March 16, 2016.

FILE - Otto Frederick Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, has been detained in North Korea since early January, is taken to North Korea's top court in Pyongyang, North Korea, March 16, 2016.

It is unknown whether the student was forced to speak. Warmbier met with a representative from the Swedish embassy in March, but since then he has not been granted consular access, according to a U.S. official who asked to remain anonymous.

Sweden represents US

Without diplomatic relations between the U.S. and North Korea, the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang has been functioning as the “protecting power,” representing U.S. interests in the North and assuming consular responsibility for American citizens there.

In late September, a private American delegation visited the North and pleaded for Warmbier’s release. The visitors met with North Korean officials and the Swedish ambassador. The visit was organized by the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, a nonprofit group led by Bill Richardson, a former New Mexico governor and United Nations ambassador.

In response to North Korea’s detention of American citizens, the U.S. State Department is urging U.S. citizens to avoid travel to the North. At least 14 U.S. citizens have been detained in the country in the past 10 years, according to the State Department.

Lee Jee-eun contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with VOA Korean Service.

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