SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea confirmed Thursday that it is preparing to indict an American who was reportedly arrested for proselytizing.
Jun Young Su has been held since November last year, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said. The report did not state what crime he was accused of, but South Korean media have reported an American was detained for spreading Christianity. He is the latest U.S. citizen to be detained in the reclusive communist state in recent years.
North Korea informed Washington of the detention and Jun has been given access to Swedish Embassy officials in Pyongyang, the news agency said.
Earlier this week, the U.S. State Department called for North Korea to release one of its citizens and said Swedish officials had visited the American. But it gave no further details. The U.S. — which fought on South Korea's side during the 1950-53 Korean War — doesn't have diplomatic staff inside North Korea and Sweden handles Washington's interests there.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported Thursday that a Korean-American with business interests in North Korea was being detained on allegations of Christian proselytizing.
Officially, North Korea guarantees freedom of religion. In practice, authorities crack down on Christians, who are seen as a Western-influenced threat to the government. The distribution of bibles and secret prayer services can mean banishment to a labor camp or execution, defectors from the country have said.
Jun Young Su once attended Bethel Church in Irvine, California, but people there on Thursday said that he had left a decade ago.
Karen Park, a church member since 1994, however, remembered Jun. She said her daughter and his daughter used to play together.
"He was a nice guy. The kids were nice," she said.
Several Americans have been detained in North Korea in recent years and freeing them often requires high-profile negotiations.
In August, former President Jimmy Carter brought home Aijalon Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years' hard labor for crossing into the North from China. He was detained for seven months in all.
Korean-American missionary Robert Park defiantly walked into North Korea on Christmas Day in 2009 to draw attention to the North's alleged human rights abuses and to call for the resignation of leader Kim Jong Il. He was released weeks later without charge.
Also in 2009, journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested for trespassing and released only after former President Bill Clinton made a trip to Pyongyang to ask for their freedom.
The latest arrest came as Carter plans to travel to Pyongyang again as early as this month.
Carter said last week that he plans to focus on trying to revive international disarmament talks on the North's nuclear program and seek ways to help with the country's humanitarian woes.
The North appears to want to use the latest detention to improve ties with the United States, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies. Still, given that the country usually releases detainees after indicting and sentencing them, there may not be sufficient time for Carter to bring Jun home during the upcoming visit, Yang said.
Associated Press writer Gillian Flaccus in Irvine, California, contributed to this report.