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US man arrested while trying to swim to North Korea

TOKYO — A U.S. national was arrested after being caught trying to swim across a river from South Korea into North Korea, apparently because he wanted to meet Kim Jong Un, officials in Seoul said Wednesday.

South Korean marines found the man lying on the banks of the Han River, which runs through Seoul but forms the border with North Korea along its western stretch, just before midnight local time on Tuesday, a Defense Ministry spokesman said.

The man is in his early 30s and was being questioned by South Korean intelligence officials on Wednesday, the spokesman said, but declined to provide any further details.

“I was trying to go to North Korea in order to meet with supreme leader Kim Jong-un,” the man told his interrogators, the South’s Yonhap News Agency reported, quoting a government source.

Such an escapade near the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, the world’s most fortified border, is highly dangerous. Soldiers on the southern side fatally shot a South Korean citizen last year after he similarly tried to swim across the river to the North.

The incident comes as Pyongyang holds three U.S. citizens accused of committing “hostile acts,” an apparent bid by the North to use them as bargaining chips in dealings with the Obama administration.

North Korea on Sunday sentenced Matthew Miller, a California man who reportedly ripped up his tourist visa upon arrival at the Pyongyang airport in April, to six years of hard labor.

Kenneth Bae, a Korean American missionary, is two years into a 15-year hard-labor sentence for “hostile acts to bring down the government.”

Jeffrey Fowle, a 56-year-old from Ohio, was arrested in May after leaving a Bible in a seamen’s club in the northeastern city of Chongjin and is awaiting trial.

Pyongyang has made it clear that it wants to cut a deal with the United States. It delivered the trio to visiting news organizations this month for highly orchestrated interviews, during which each of the men called on Washington to send an envoy to secure their release.

The State Department has offered to send Robert King, its point man on North Korean human rights, to Pyongyang, but nothing has come of it. The regime apparently wants someone with a higher profile.

Other U.S. citizens detained in North Korea in recent years have been released after visits by former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

This is not the first time a U.S. citizen has tried to swim to North Korea.

Evan Hunziker, then 26, swam naked across the Yalu River from China to North Korea in 1996 on a drunken dare. He was arrested and accused of spying but was freed three months later when Bill Richardson, then a New Mexico congressman who had been dealing with North Korea, went to Pyongyang to secure his release.

Yoonjung Seo in Seoul contributed to this report.

© 2014, The Washington Post

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