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Updated Saturday, December 15, 2012 at 12:16 PM

North Korea detains Lynnwood man conducting tour of country

By Sandi Doughton
Seattle Times staff reporter

A 44-year-old Lynnwood man, who conducted tours of North Korea, has been detained there for a month.

According to South Korean news reports, Kenneth Bae was taken into custody in the town of Rajin, near the Russian border in early November. Bae was born in South Korea and is a naturalized American citizen.

Chong Tae Kim, editor of the Korean-language publication JoySeattle.com, spoke with Bae's mother, who also lives in the Seattle area. "She doesn't know much about what really happened," he said. "She hopes that the U.S. government and the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang help to release him."

Because it has no embassy in North Korea, the U.S. relies on Sweden to represent its interests there.

The offices of Sen. Patty Murray, Rep. Jim McDermott and Rep. Suzan DelBene have all been in touch with the State Department.

"We are monitoring and are very concerned about the situation," said Viet Shelton, spokesman for DelBene, whose district includes Lynnwood until new boundaries take effect next year. "We are going to request information ... and see what, if anything, can be done to resolve the situation."

State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson declined to elaborate on the situation, citing privacy considerations.

The New York Times reported that Bae had been escorting a small group of European tourists or potential investors. South Korean news reports said one of the people in the group was carrying a computer hard disk that aroused the suspicions of North Korean officials.

As the person responsible for the group, Bae was the one detained. But a South Korean human-rights activist speculated that Bae might have also been arrested for something as minor as photographing children begging for food.

State Rep. Cindy Ryu, a Democrat from Shoreline, said she is concerned about Bae. Also a native of South Korea, Ryu said it's not unusual for North Korean authorities to target one member of a group for detention. "Just to show they have total control," she said.

Two American television journalists were arrested in 2009 after straying across the Chinese border into North Korea. The two women were tried, found guilty and sentenced to 12 years' hard labor. They were released after former President Clinton visited North Korea to intercede on their behalf.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com


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