A former Korean-American professor has been detained in North Korea, becoming the third US citizen to be held by the regime since 2016.
The man in his late 50s, known only by his surname Kim, was reportedly prevented from leaving the country on Friday when he tried to board a flight at Pyongyang international airport.
His detention will further complicate relations between Washington and Pyongyang at a time of already heightened tension.
On Sunday, the US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson began joint exercises with Japan, in another show of force against the North Korean regime, which may be on the brink of a sixth nuclear bomb test.
The Swedish embassy in Pyongyang confirmed that an American citizen had been detained but could not give further details. Sweden represents US interests in North Korea as Washington does not have direct diplomatic relations with the country.
“He was prevented from getting on the flight out of Pyongyang,” Martina Aberg, deputy chief of mission told CNN. “We don’t comment further than this.”
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that the man being held was a former professor of Yanbian University of Science and Technology in China, and that he had been involved in aid and relief programmes in North Korea.
He is believed to have been there for about one month. Although little is known about his aid activities, the north of the country suffered devastating floods last September that killed hundreds of people and left an estimated 100,000 homeless.
At least two other Americans are currently being held by the North Korean regime. Last year, Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia student from suburban Cincinnati, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour after he confessed to trying to steal a propaganda banner.
A short time later, businessman Kim Dong Chul, 62, who was born in South Korea but is also believed to have US citizenship, was arrested on charges of alleged espionage and sentenced to ten years.
Since 2013, at least two other US citizens have been detained as they were about to fly out of the country. Merril Newman, a Korean war veteran, and Jeffrey Fowle, accused of leaving a bible at a club for foreign sailors, were allowed to leave after a few months.
Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary sentenced to 15 years hard labour, was freed in 2014 after the intervention of James Clapper, then director of national intelligence.
The US has previously accused Pyongyang of using its citizens as diplomatic pawns, a charge which the North Koreans deny.
However, North Korea has used the tactic of holding foreign nationals as a bargaining chip in the recent past.
In March, nine Malaysian diplomats and their families were allowed to return home from Pyongyang in exchange for the body of dictator Kim Jong-un’s half brother Kim Jong-nam, who had been assassinated in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.
The diplomats were only released when three North Korean suspects in the murder were also allowed to leave Malaysia.
The latest detention of a US citizen comes amid an escalating stand-off between the US and its Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, and Kim Jong-un’s regime over its nuclear and missile tests.
North Korea’s ambition to build an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could carry a nuclear warhead to US shores has increased the chances of a military confrontation.
Japan and South Korea are increasingly concerned that they could be first in the firing line of nuclear or chemical warheads.
Two Japanese warships left western Japan on Friday to join US aircraft carrier, the Carl Vinson, for exercises in the Philippine Sea.
The drills will also involve a US guided-missile cruiser and guided-missile destroyer, said the US navy.
The joint drill is designed to “ensure maritime forces remain ready to defend the region when called upon,” the navy said on its Facebook page.
North Korea said on Sunday that it was ready to sink a US aircraft carrier to demonstrate its military force.
“Our revolutionary forces are combat-ready to sink a nuclear powered aircraft carrier with a single strike,” reported the Rodong Sinmun, a newspaper known to report propaganda for the North Korean regime.