North Korea said Sunday that it has arrested an American citizen and will imprison him for espionage.
North Korean authorities identified the man as Evan Carl Hunzike, but they did not give his age or hometown or describe him further.
Some American officials reached Sunday said they never had heard the name before, and a search of their databases turned up no sign of such a person.
In Washington, a White House spokeswoman said officials from the Swedish Embassy had visited Hunzike about three weeks ago at a hotel where he was being held in the North Korean city of Sinuiju, but she said the United States does not know where he is now.
The United States and North Korea have no diplomatic relations; the Swedish charge d’affaires represents American interests in Pyongyang.
“We understand he is being treated properly,” said the spokeswoman. “The U.S. government is working hard to figure out why he was there.”
The North Korean Central News Agency said police arrested Hunzike on Aug. 24 after he illegally had slipped in from China across the Yalu River.
“He admitted he is a U.S. citizen and he illegally entered” to gather information, the report said. It added: “It has been proved by investigation that he was sent for espionage by South Korea’s Agency for National Security Planning.”
The report concluded that Hunzike “will have to take an appropriate penal responsibility” under North Korean law.
In the past, North Korea occasionally has shot down American aircraft or detained American vessels. But this apparently is the first time it has reported the seizure of an American sneaking into the country in this way. No Americans are known to have been detained on criminal charges in North Korea recently.
“It doesn’t add up,” said a longtime American specialist on North Korean intelligence. “It’s hard to imagine anyone in his right mind sneaking across from China.”
If North Korea has indeed arrested an American, it may hope to use him as a bargaining chip to enter into negotiations with the United States. The North also may hope to divert attention from a recent incident in which one of its submarines ran aground off South Korea’s eastern coast and dropped off 26 infiltrators.
Some 40,000 South Korean troops still are searching for the last three of them. The others have been killed or captured.
Sunday’s announcement comes at a sensitive time. For months, Washington has been trying to entice the North out of its isolation and to begin four-party peace talks involving both Koreas, the United States and China. So far, North Korea has not said whether it will join the talks, but any prospect for reconciliation with the South has been seriously harmed by the submarine infiltration.
In addition, relations with Washington have been strained by recent reports - which vigorously are denied by North Korea - that North Korea still may be holding American prisoners from the Korean War, which ended in 1953.