In this March 21, 2017 photo, passengers arrive from international flights at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has said that US officials forcibly seized a diplomatic package from one of their delegations at John F. Kennedy Airport. (Don Emmert / AFP)
NEW YORK — The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) said Sunday that US officials forcibly seized a diplomatic package from one of their delegations at John F. Kennedy Airport, calling it an "illegal and heinous act of provocation."
The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said officials were returning from a UN conference on rights of persons with disabilities Friday when they were "literally mugged."
"At the airport, a group of more than 20 including those who claimed to be from the US Department of Homeland Security and the police officers made a violent assault like gangsters to take away the diplomatic package from the DPRK diplomats who were in possession of a valid diplomatic courier certificate," a spokesman for DPRK foreign ministry told the news agency.
"As the diplomats vigorously resisted, they grabbed the diplomatic package using physical violence and made off," said the spokesman.
The spokesman also branded the action as "a planned and organized provocation" and "an intolerable act of infringement upon the sovereignty of the DPRK," warning that the US should "be fully aware of the grave consequences to follow."
US Department of Homeland Security spokesman David Lapan said Sunday its officers did seize multiple media items and packages from three DPRK men who, according to the US State Department, were not accredited members of DPRK Mission to the UN and had no diplomatic immunity.
"The package in question had no diplomatic protection from inspection," said Lapan, adding that the DPRK men attempted to physically retrieve the items but were prevented from doing so by DHS officers.
"The reported aggression was initiated by the North Koreans," Lapan said. "The individuals were released without further incident but subsequently refused to board their departing flight without the items that had been seized."
It wasn't immediately clear why the items were taken. The US Department of State said it was looking into the situation but offered no immediate comment.
The incident comes days after 22-year-old American college student Otto Warmbier was returned to his home state of Ohio in a coma with severe brain damage after being imprisoned in the DPRK for 17 months.
The DPRK claims the coma resulted from botulism and a sleeping pill, but US doctors said they found no evidence of active botulism, a rare, serious illness caused by contaminated food or a dirty wound.