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Freeing 3 detainees could lead to U.S.-North Korea talks

Feb 20,2018
North Korea’s release of three Americans it has detained could play a crucial role in facilitating talks between Washington and Pyongyang, senior Blue House officials said Monday.

“Right now, the United States and the North are in a stage of exploring options to have a preliminary dialogue,” a senior aide of President Moon Jae-in told the JoongAng Ilbo.

“If the North releases three American detainees, it can play a role as a catalyst to start the North-U.S. talks.”

The aide said the North is refraining from provocative actions like missile tests because it is very well aware that the mood for talks could be ruined. “Under this circumstance, the most important thing now is a more aggressive attitude from either one of them to first propose talks.”

Three Korean-Americans are imprisoned in the North. Tony Kim, also known as Kim Sang-duk, and Kim Hak-song were arrested in 2017 on charges of “hostile acts.”

Kim Dong-chul, a minister, was detained in 2015 on charges of espionage and attempts to subvert the state. Another associate of Moon has publicly promoted the idea of using the release of Americans to smooth the way for U.S.-North talks.

During lectures at SOAS University of London and University of Bath’s London campus on Jan. 30 and 31, Moon Chung-in, special adviser to President Moon for foreign affairs and national security, had said U.S. Vice President Mike Pence could talk to representatives of the North on the sidelines of the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics if Pyongyang made the gesture of releasing the detainees.

During North Korea’s high-level delegation’s visit to the South this month, Moon urged Pyongyang to talk to Washington.

“During his meetings with [North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister] Kim Yo-jong at the Blue House on Feb. 10, Moon mainly explained the importance of North-U.S. talks,” a senior presidential aide said.

“The North’s denuclearization is an issue that the North and the United States eventually have to resolve, and Moon’s urging of bilateral talks between Pyongyang and Washington means denuclearization talks.”

Moon also met Pence in the evening on Feb. 10 and watched a short-track speed skating game sitting beside him.

“Except for a meeting and dinner, it was the only schedule outside the Blue House the United States has asked for during Pence’s visit,” another presidential aide said.

“It took place shortly after Moon’s meeting with the North Korean delegation. Moon asked Pence that the United States engage in talks with the North to explore options without a fixed agenda.”

Pence visited South Korea from Feb. 8 to 10 but did not have contact with the North Korean delegation. On his way back to the United States, Pence told the Washington Post that talks with the North were possible.

“The maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk,” he said.

If Pyongyang and Washington make contact to discuss the release of American detainees, it won’t be the first time they use humanitarian issues in order to start a bilateral negotiation.

In 2014, James Clapper, then director of national intelligence, visited the North to negotiate the release of Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae. The North and the United States also had contacts in Norway to arrange the release of Otto Warmbier, who was arrested in 2016 for theft.

After 17 months of imprisonment, Warmbier was released in a vegetative state. He never regained consciousness and died in June 2017, six days after his return to the United States.

The U.S. vice president’s trip to the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games also sent a message to the North. Pence invited the father of the late Warmbier to join him on his trip, and they had a meeting with North Korean defectors in Seoul.

The United States did not ask cooperation from the South Korean government to arrange that meeting, indicating that it was a direct message toward the North.

U.S. President Donald Trump also invited Warmbier’s parents to his State of the Union address on Jan. 30.

BY KANG TAE-HWA, SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]