Kasich: Cincy man's NKorea arrest 'inexcusable'

Posted at 7:06 AM, Jan 22, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-23 00:15:36-05

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea announced Friday the arrest of a man who graduated from high school in Cincinnati for what it called a "hostile act" orchestrated by the American government to undermine the authoritarian nation.

Pyongyang's state media said Otto Frederick Warmbier, a University of Virginia student and Wyoming High School graduate, entered the country under the guise of a tourist and plotted to destroy North Korean unity with "the tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its manipulation."

The North's official Korean Central News Agency said in a short report that Warmbier was "arrested while perpetrating a hostile act," but didn't say when he was detained or explain the nature of the act.

Wyoming City Schools spokeswoman Susanna Max said Warmbier was the salutatorian of his 2013 graduating class and played soccer for Wyoming High School, a highly rated public school north of Cincinnati

Max says school officials are in communication with Warmbier's family, which includes two sisters in Wyoming schools. She says the school district asks that everyone respect the family's privacy.

Another southwest Ohio native was detained by North Korea in 2014. Jeffrey Fowle of the Dayton area was held nearly six months. The married father of three children said he was held after leaving a Bible he hoped would get to "underground" Christians.

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 administration "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 alleged anti-state activities or immediately release Warmbier.

The U.S. State Department said in an earlier statement that it was "aware of media reports that a U.S. citizen was detained in North Korea," but had "no further information to share due to privacy considerations."

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; he was on the University of Virginia's dean's list.

"I can tell you he's a very intelligent, wonderful young man," said Jeremy Marcel, a professor at the university's school of commerce.

"He's an incredible guy," added Miles Kirwin, who said he was a Theta Chi fraternity brother.

North Korea's announcement comes amid a diplomatic push by Washington, Seoul and their allies to slap Pyongyang with tough sanctions for its recent nuclear test.

In the past, 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 entire Korean Peninsula. Some foreigners previously arrested have read statements of guilt that they later said were coerced.

A few thousand Westerners are thought to visit North Korea each year, and Pyongyang is pushing for more tourists as a way to help its dismal economy.

The U.S. State Department 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, although most have eventually been released.

Earlier this month, CNN reported that North Korea had detained another U.S. citizen on suspicion of spying. It said a man identified as Kim Dong Chul was being held by the North and said authorities had accused him of spying and stealing state secrets.

North Korea has yet to comment on the report. The U.S. State Department has said it could not confirm the CNN report. It declined to discuss the issue further or confirm whether the U.S. was consulting with Sweden, which handles U.S. consular issues in North Korea because Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic relations. North Korea has previously released or deported U.S. detainees after high-profile Americans visited the country.

In late 2014, for instance, North Korea released two Americans after a secret mission to the North by James Clapper, the top U.S. intelligence official. 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.

North Korea is holding at least three South Koreans and one Canadian. Last month, North Korea's Supreme Court sentenced a Canadian pastor to life in prison with hard labor for what it called crimes against the state.

The offenses he was charged with included harming the dignity of the North's leadership and trying to use religion to destroy the North Korean system, according to the North's state media.

An attorney who represented Jeffrey Fowle, the Dayton-area man held by North Korea in 2014, advised caution for those involved with the student.

"They (North Korea) kind of trickle information out, but what's actually going on can be very different," said attorney Timothy Tepe of Lebanon, Ohio, adding that he learned that North Korean authorities monitor reports and comments about detainees. "You have to be careful what you say."

He said Fowle is "doing wonderful" and seems to have adjusted well to life at his home near Dayton. The married father of three attends church regularly with his family and returned to a job in the city of Moraine's street department, Tepe said.