Seoul, AP—North Korea has canceled for a second time its invitation for a senior US envoy to visit the country to discuss a long-detained American’s possible release, the State Department said on Monday.
The cancellation comes only days after detained American missionary Kenneth Bae told a pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan that he expected to meet this month with the envoy.
It signals an apparent protest at upcoming annual military drills between Washington and Seoul and an alleged mobilization of US nuclear-capable B-52 bombers during training near the Korean Peninsula. North Korea calls the planned drills a rehearsal for invasion, a claim the allies deny.
The State Department also said in a statement that US civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson had offered to travel to North Korea at the request of Bae’s family. The State Department did not elaborate and referred questions to Jackson, whose spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Analysts say North Korea has previously used detained Americans as leverage in its standoff with the US over its nuclear and missile programs. North Korea denies this.
Bae has been held in North Korea for 15 months, accused of smuggling inflammatory literature into the country and trying to establish a base for anti-government activities at a border city hotel. Bae was quoted last week in an interview with the Japan-based Choson Sinbo newspaper saying that a Swedish diplomat told him that Bob King, the US envoy on North Korean human rights issues, would visit him as early as Monday and no later than the end of the month. Bae added that the diplomat told him the US government had informed North Korea it intended to send the Rev. Jackson, but North Korea rejected that offer in favor of King, the report said, without elaborating. The US and North Korea were on opposite sides during the 1950-53 Korean War, and have had no diplomatic relations since. The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang handles consular matters there for the US
“We are deeply disappointed by the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] decision—for a second time—to rescind its invitation for Ambassador King to travel to Pyongyang to discuss Kenneth Bae’s release,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
She added that the upcoming military drills with South Korea were “in no way linked to Mr. Bae’s case,” and that Washington remained prepared to send King to North Korea in support of Bae’s release.
North Korea first rescinded its invitation to King in August, saying that Washington had perpetrated a grave provocation by flying B-52 bombers during previous military drills with South Korea. Last week, North Korea threatened to scrap reunions of war-divided families in the two Koreas later this month, citing the drills.
The US Pacific Command would not confirm the North’s bomber flight claim but said it had maintained a strategic bomber presence in the region for more than a decade. South Korea’s Defense Ministry said on Monday that two sets of South Korea-US military drills would begin on February 24 and the second, longer one would run until April 18.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is to visit Seoul on Thursday and Friday for talks on North Korea as part of an Asian tour, according to the State Department and Seoul’s Foreign Ministry. “North Korea appears to be more scared about the B-52s than [about ordinary US military drills] because the bombers can conduct precision strikes against the headquarters of the country’s leadership,” said analyst Cheong Seong-jang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea.
North Korea has recently toned down its usual harsh rhetoric against South Korea and has made a series of conciliatory gestures. Outside observers link this softening to its need for improved ties with the outside world in order to attract foreign investment and aid. Cheong said talks on Bae’s release would likely come only after the US-South Korea drills ended in April. Bae’s sister, Terri Chung of Edmonds, Washington, said Friday that her family learned from the US State Department that Bae, 45, had been taken back to a labor camp from a hospital where he had been treated after losing 50 pounds (22.6 kilograms).
Bae, who led tour groups in North Korea, has been serving 15 years of hard labor. His family says he suffers from diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain. In the Choson Sinbo interview, Bae said he did eight hours of labor a day and suffered pain in his legs and back.
Meanwhile, Donald Gregg, a former US ambassador to South Korea, arrived in Pyongyang on Monday with representatives of the Pacific Century Institute, a US private group. Gregg, who is chairman of the institute, would not say what he was hoping to discuss there. Another group member and former US diplomat Lynn Turk said they were invited by the North Korean Foreign Ministry and their aim was to discuss how to “build bridges” between the countries.