Pyongyang has accused U.S. authorities of having “mugged” a delegation of North Korean officials by seizing a mysterious “diplomatic package” at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, state media reported Sunday.
Citing a spokesman from the North’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the official Korean Central News Agency said that a group of more than 20 Homeland Security and police officers had “made a violent assault like gangsters to take away the diplomatic package” as diplomats attempted to board a flight, despite them possessing “a valid diplomatic courier certificate” for the package.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the DPRK regards this mugging by the U.S. as an intolerable act of infringement upon the sovereignty of the DPRK and a malicious provocation, and strongly condemns it in the name of the government of the DPRK,” the spokesman was quoted as saying.
In a statement to The Japan Times, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security disputed the North’s claims, saying DHS officers assigned to the airport had assisted in the inspection of three North Korean nationals.
“According to the U.S. State Department, the North Korean citizens were not accredited members of North Korea’s Mission to the U.N. and had no entitlement to diplomatic immunity,” said David Lapan, DHS deputy assistant secretary for media operations. “The package in question had no diplomatic protection from inspection.”
Lapan said DHS officers seized multiple media items and packages from the individuals, which the North Koreans attempted to physically retrieve, but were prevented from doing so by the officers.
“The reported aggression was initiated by the North Koreans,” Lapan said. “The individuals were released without further incident but subsequently refused to board their departing flight without the items that had been seized.”
It was unclear exactly what was inside the package or what the media items were. Asked about this, Lapan demurred, saying DHS was unable to provide that information “at this point.”
The KCNA report said the “planned and organized provocation” came after the North Korean delegation had been in New York to attend the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The Foreign Ministry spokesman said the world should “seriously reconsider” New York as a venue for major international events and demanded Washington provide an explanation for infringing upon its sovereignty.
“If the U.S. fails to give its due response to our demand which is all too reasonable and fair enough, it will be totally responsible for all the consequences to be entailed,” the spokesman added.
The unusual incident came just days after Washington secured the release of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who had been serving a 15-year prison term with hard labor for “anti-state” acts.
Warmbier, 22, was medically evacuated from the reclusive country after falling into a coma shortly after his show trial last year, according to the North.
While three more U.S. nationals are still being held in the North, Warmbier’s release has stoked speculation of a thaw in relations.
Tensions have surged after Pyongyang unleashed a string of missile launches and tests of other advanced weaponry in recent weeks, as it seeks to highlight its progress toward mastering technology needed to mount a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile capable of striking the continental United States.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed sanctions against North Korea for the reclusive state’s nuclear and ballistic missile activities, but Pyongyang has ignored them.
The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that American diplomats have held secret talks in Pyongyang and European cities with North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator for more than a year, hoping to free U.S. prisoners and even establish a diplomatic channel to rein in the North’s nuclear arms and missile programs.
In a New Year’s Day address, Kim claimed that the North was in the “final stages” of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile. U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed that such a launch “won’t happen” on his watch.
North Korea has warned that it is “not too far away” from testing such a missile.
Trump has offered mixed messages about Kim, saying, at various times, that he would be “honored” to meet him under the right conditions and even going so far as to describe him as a “smart cookie.”
But the unpredictable U.S. leader has also described Kim as a “madman with nuclear weapons.”