U.S. reached out to North in effort to free Bae

Kyodo, AFP-JIJI

A U.S. special envoy held talks with a senior North Korean diplomat in New York last week on the release of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary detained in the communist country for more than a year, diplomatic sources said Tuesday.

Robert King, U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights issues, sounded out visiting Pyongyang to secure Bae’s release during a meeting with Jang Il Hun at North Korea’s mission to the United Nations on Friday, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But Jang, North Korea’s representative in the so-called New York channel, and who is in charge of its relations with the United States, did not give a specific response to King’s request, the sources said.

Jang, one of the ambassadors at the mission, instead told King that the U.S. must stop its annual military drills with South Korea, due to start possibly in late next month, the sources said.

King’s rare direct contact with the North Korean side came after a news conference given by Bae on Jan. 20 at a hospital in Pyongyang with a handful of foreign media organizations. The news conference has been seen by Washington as a sign that the country may be willing to release him in the near future.

On Tuesday, Washington said it was scaling back an annual exercise with Seoul next month and will not deploy an aircraft carrier or fly strategic bombers for the drill. Last year the U.S. put on a show of military might for the exercise in response to saber-rattling by North Korea. But the U.S. is adopting a lower profile this time around, apparently due to the conciliatory steps by Pyongyang.

“There is no carrier involvement in exercise Key Resolve this year,” a U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity said, adding that there were also no plans to send out nuclear-capable bombers as in last year’s drill.

The two officials acknowledged that the United States tends to calibrate what ships and aircraft are featured in drills partly in response to North Korea’s behavior.

Last year, in the months leading up to annual exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, Pyongyang — angered over United Nations sanctions — stirred up tensions on the Korean Peninsula with talk of a new war and threats to tear up the 1953 armistice agreement.

In response, the U.S. military sent out B-52 bombers and B-2 stealth bombers for the exercises, as well as an attack submarine and two F-22 radar-evading fighter jets.