N. Korea Won’t Release U.S. Citizens Until Former Detainee Stops ‘Babbling’

SEOUL (Reuters) —
Otto Frederick Warmbier (3rd R), a University of Virginia student who has been detained in North Korea since early January, attends a new conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo February 29, 2016. Warmbier was detained for trying to steal a propaganda slogan from his Pyongyang hotel and has confessed to "severe crimes" against the state, the North's official media said on Monday. Warmbier, 21, was detained before boarding his flight to China over an unspecified incident at his hotel, his tour agency told Reuters in January. Mandatory credit REUTERS/Kyodo ATTENTION EDITORS - FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. MANDATORY CREDIT. JAPAN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN JAPAN.
Otto Frederick Warmbier,  a University of Virginia student who has been detained in North Korea, attends a news conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, February 29. (Reuters/Kyodo)

North Korea will not negotiate with the United States over two American citizens it is holding until former detainee Kenneth Bae stops publicly talking about his time in prison, state media said on Monday.

Criticized over its human rights record for years, North Korea has made use of detained Americans in the past to extract high-profile visits from the United States, with which it has no formal diplomatic relations.

North Korea arrested Bae, a U.S. missionary, in November 2012 and sentenced him to 15 years’ hard labor for crimes against the state.

He was released two years later and has written an account of his detention in a memoir released in May. Since then, Bae has spoken about his experiences at several public appearances and given interviews to promote the book.

“As long as Kenneth Bae continues his babbling, we will not proceed with any compromise or negotiations with the United States on the subject of American criminals, and there will certainly not be any such thing as humanitarian action,” the North’s KCNA news agency said.

“If Bae continues, U.S. criminals held in our country will be in the pitiful state of never being able to set foot in their homeland once again.”

Pyongyang is holding two U.S. citizens, both of whom it has tried and sentenced to hard labor. In March, Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old student of the University of Virginia, was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor for trying to steal a propaganda banner bearing the name of former leader Kim Jong Il.

In April, a North Korean court convicted Korean-American missionary Kim Dong Chul of crimes against the state and sentenced him to 10 years’ hard labor.

Last year, Canadian missionary Hyeon Soo Lim was sentenced to hard labor for life for subversion of the state.

The United States and Canada both strongly advise citizens not to travel to North Korea. This May, the U.S. State Department said Americans who traveled there despite the warnings risked “unduly harsh sentences.”

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