North Korea said it rescinded its invitation for a US envoy to visit the country to seek the freedom of an US detainee because Washington perpetrated a “grave provocation” by allegedly mobilizing nuclear-capable bombers during recent military drills with Seoul.
The moves signal that possible informal negotiations between the two countries over detainee Kenneth Bae were not going smoothly, with Pyongyang seeking some concessions from Washington in return for releasing the man, analysts said.
Bob King, the US special envoy for North Korean human rights, had been scheduled to travel to Pyongyang on Friday for talks on Bae, a 45-year-old tour operator and Christian missionary who has been detained since November last year for committing “hostile acts.” He was sentenced in April to 15 years of hard labor.
An unidentified North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said in remarks carried by state media late on Saturday that his country intended to allow King’s visit even though the US and South Korea were conducting annual military drills.
However, he said the US “beclouded the hard-won atmosphere of humanitarian dialogue in a moment” by allegedly infiltrating B-52H strategic bombers into the sky above the Korean Peninsula during the exercises.
He called it “the most blatant nuclear blackmail against us.”
The North Korean statement “may be the result of the fact that compromises are not being struck smoothly in US-North Korea negotiations”’ over what North Korea wants for releasing Bae, said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at South Korea’s Kyungnam University, adding that could include such things as the shipment of aid or the start of formal talks on improving ties.
North Korea appears to be trying to gain leverage on the US by delaying King’s trip, but it should eventually allow the trip for talks on Bae because it needs improved ties with the outside world to revive its economy, Lim said.
Analysts say North Korea has previously used detained Americans as bargaining chips in its standoff with the US over its nuclear and missile programs.
International disarmament talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear ambitions remain stalled since 2009 and efforts by Washington to negotiate a freeze in the North’s nuclear program in exchange for food aid collapsed 18 months ago.
King’s planned trip raised prospects for improved relations between the wartime foes as it would have been the first public trip by a US administration official to the country in more than two years.
The annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills, which ended on Friday last week, were computer-simulated war games that US and South Korea say are defensive in nature, but which North Korea calls a rehearsal for an invasion. The US military command in Seoul did not immediately comment on the North Korean statement.
Earlier this year, the US took the unusual step of sending nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 bombers to participate in springtime military drills with South Korea as tension was running high after a string of warlike rhetoric from North Korea, including vows to launch nuclear war. The flights drew a furious response from Pyongyang. Animosities have since eased, with Pyongyang moderating its rhetoric and seeking diplomacy with Seoul and Washington.
US Department of State spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Friday the US was “surprised and disappointed by North Korea’s decision” and remains gravely concerned about Bae’s health.