A Tacoma man is baffled by circumstances that led to his 26-year-old son being arrested in North Korea as an accused spy, a charge that could carry the death penalty.
"I thought he was going there to teach the Gospel or something," Edwin Hunziker said regarding reports that his son, Evan Carl Hunziker, was arrested after allegedly swimming across a heavily patrolled river from China into North Korea to spy for South Korea.
The young man's mother, contacted in Anchorage, said she, too, is confused and frightened by the developments that put her son in the middle of a bitter dispute between North and South Korea.
"My son is a Christian. He's not a spy," said Jong Nye Hunziker, "He has a good heart. If somebody is hungry, he will give them food."
Hunziker's parents learned of their son's arrest over the weekend and say they've gotten little information from State Department officials.
"I've been praying every day, and can only hope that he comes back home," his mother said.
Analysts say North Korea may have announced Hunziker's arrest to divert international attention from a recent incident in which 26 North Korean commandos apparently sought to infiltrate South Korea aboard a rusty submarine, and from last week's unsolved slaying of a South Korean diplomat in Russia.
South Korean security officials have reportedly dismissed as "ridiculous" the notion that they would have a U.S. citizen with foreign-looking features attempt to spy on secretive North Korea.
Hunziker was arrested Aug. 24 after crossing the Yalu River from China into North Korea.
A State Department spokeswoman said today U.S. officials have been in contact with the young man but declined to discuss details.
Edwin Hunziker, who last spoke to his son in July, said he believed his son went to South Korea to live with a cousin and to teach.
Hunziker said his son was born in Tacoma but lived most of his life in Anchorage, although he returned to Tacoma as a teenager, graduating from Stadium High School.
He recently did odd jobs around Tacoma and Seattle, then moved back to Alaska, his father said.
Edwin Hunziker, an Army veteran, and his wife, a South Korean native, met in Korea where Hunziker was stationed during the Korean War. They were divorced in 1974.
In Anchorage, Evan often helped his mother at the motel she manages, giving people rides to and from the airport, she said.
She described her son as "overprotective," a feeling she said led to a clash between her son and her boyfriend.
Her son, who also married a South Korean woman, was divorced about three years ago, Jong Nye Hunziker said. She said her son spoke Korean well and had told her he intended to go to college and become a missionary.
Alaska Department of Corrections officials say Hunziker was arrested in Anchorage in 1993 for criminal mischief and minor assault and for domestic violence in January this year. A bench warrant has been issued for him for failure to participate in a court-ordered program for domestic-violence offenders, court records show.
South Korean officials say Hunziker left Seattle in July to visit the cousin in South Korea and left to tour China in late summer.
South Korean television news reported last night that Hunziker was with a tourist group in China when he became intoxicated and crossed the river into North Korea.
The man's stepbrother, George Hunziker, 37, of Anchorage, said he was close to Evan and couldn't believe his brother would knowingly try to enter North Korea.
"He's always been pretty childlike in his perception of what the world was like," Hunziker said. "He's just sort of naive to how things work."
He said his brother had been staying with his cousin, Jae Hun Yun, in Seoul, at the time of his arrest, and speculated the venture into North Korea was accidental.
"He has never had any political connection to anything whatsoever," Hunziker said. "He never really had much ambition."
Kim Chang Soon, director of the Institute of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said it is no accident that this arrest follows the submarine incident. "The timing and intention behind all this is that North Korea is trying to send a signal to the Clinton administration that Washington should stay at least neutral when it deals with the two Koreas."
Tsutomu Nishioka, editor of Modern Korea Monthly magazine in Tokyo, said Hunziker is believed to be the first U.S. civilian arrested by North Korea on spying charges since the 1950-53 Korean War.
This report includes information from The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Reuters.