WASHINGTON/SEOUL, Dec. 11 (Yonhap) -- Responding to reports that a U.S. citizen is being held in North Korea, the U.S. government on Tuesday emphasized the importance of protecting its people.
"We're obviously aware of these reports that a U.S. citizen has been detained in North Korea," said Victoria Nuland, spokeswoman for the State Department, at a press briefing. "We obviously have no higher priority than the welfare of our citizens."
She would neither confirm nor deny the reports, citing "privacy considerations."
Nuland, however, talked about the role of the Swedish Embassy in North Korea in case of any incident associated with the safety of a U.S. national in the reclusive communist nation. The U.S. has no diplomatic ties with North Korea.
"The Embassy of Sweden acts as our protecting power for issues involving U.S. citizens in North Korea," Nuland said in comments that some reporters construed as virtually affirming the reports.
Earlier, a South Korean newspaper reported Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour operator, had been arrested by security authorities in North Korea in early November.
Bae, 44, entered the northeastern port city of Rajin on Nov. 3 along with five other tourists for a five-day trip, according to the Kookmin Ilbo.
Bae was detained by North Korean authorities and has been questioned after a computer hard disk was found among the tourists, it quoted an unidentified source as saying.
The source told the paper that the hard disk might have contained sensitive information about North Korea.
After his detention, Bae was transferred to Pyongyang for further investigation, the newspaper said.
The United States, through its embassy in Beijing, has been negotiating with North Korea for Bae's release, it added.
Some other South Korean news outlets carried similar reports later.
In recent years, several U.S. citizens have been detained in North Korea, but all of them were released thanks mainly to diplomatic efforts through the Swedish Embassy.
Last year, Eddie Yong Su Jun, a Korean-American missionary, was released after facing indictment on charges of committing an unspecified crime against the regime.
In 2010, North Korea set free Robert Park, a Korean-American Christian activist who crossed into the country on Christmas Day 2009 to draw international attention to the North's poor human rights record.
In 2009, former U.S. President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to win the release of two American journalists caught during a reporting tour covering North Korean defectors.
Bae's detention, if true, comes amid tensions over Pyongyang's planned long-range rocket launch.
It raises concern that Pyongyang may try to use the case as a trump card in post-launch dealings with the U.S.
North Korea claims that the three-stage rocket will put a scientific satellite into orbit, but the U.S. and other regional players believe that it is a disguised test of long-range missile technology, banned by the United Nations.
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