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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 278 (Sept. 5, 2013)

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N. Korea Retracts Invitation for U.S. Envoy on Detained American Citizen

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea abruptly canceled its invitation on Aug. 30 for a U.S. special envoy to visit Pyongyang, bewildering American and South Korean officials who apparently were expecting the visit to help release an American man detained in the socialist nation.

At the invitation of the North, Amb. Robert King, special envoy on North Korean human rights issues, had planned to travel to Pyongyang on Aug. 30 in an effort to free Kenneth Bae, a 45-year-old Korean-American whose health is reportedly deteriorating.

Bae was detained after entering North Korea through Rajin port on the northeastern coast. He has been found guilty of hostile acts against the DPRK and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. The DPRK stands for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North's official name. The 45-year-old has since been moved to a hospital for foreigners in the communist country.

However, the North informed the U.S. that it has withdrawn the invitation, according to the U.S. State Department, leaving the prospects for Bae's release and the Pyongyang-Washington relations uncertain.

"We are surprised and disappointed by North Korea's decision," Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman for the department, said in a press release in Washington.

"We have sought clarification from the DPRK (North Korea) about its decision and have made every effort so that Ambassador King's trip could continue as planned or take place at a later date," she added. "Ambassador King intends to return to Washington from Tokyo the afternoon of Aug. 31."

A U.S. government source said that Washington is still waiting for Pyongyang to allow King to enter the country.

"Many people here are scratching their heads. Such a move by North Korea will only lead to a further loss of trust and credibility," the source said. "There is growing impatience here, with North Korea apparently playing a game with the life of an American citizen."

South Korean officials in Washington also expressed dismay.

"We expected Ambassador King's trip to North Korea (to take place) and a resolution to the detention issue, which could help create a positive mood in easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula," a South Korean Embassy official said. "We are surprised and disappointed."

Speculation is rampant over why North Korea retracted the invitation just before King left for the country.

Some observers said North Korea might be upset about the U.S. President Barack Obama administration's statement that it was not linking his trip with the possibility of resuming dialogue with Pyongyang.

But the U.S. government source emphasized that the North knew the U.S. was separating the humanitarian matter with conditions for talks.

Rather, North Korea may be trying to stage a war of nerves with the U.S. to gain concessions, said observers.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry held the U.S. responsible for the cancellation of its invitation, claiming it was due to fresh U.S. military provocations.

"The infiltration of the U.S. strategic bombers over the Korean Peninsula was a grave provocation," a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman told the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

The KCNA quoted the spokesman on Aug. 31 as saying that the country "intended to allow the visit of the U.S. special envoy and have a sincere discussion with him on the issue of the U.S. citizen who is serving a prison term from a humanitarian viewpoint." But the U.S. "perpetrated such a grave military provocation as infiltrating B-52H strategic bombers into the sky above the Korean Peninsula in succession, an unprecedented act, for a drill for a nuclear bombing, far from positively responding to our tolerance and patience."

"The U.S. thus beclouded the hard-won atmosphere of humanitarian dialogue in a moment," he said.

South Korea and the U.S. ended a 12-day joint military drill, called Ulchi Freedom Guardian, on Aug. 30. It was not immediately known whether the U.S. had flown the strategic bombers during the drills.

North Korea claimed in the statement that it had clearly explained to the U.S. why it had canceled King's trip but that U.S. officials are spreading "misinformation" about its intentions.

"It is something surprising that the U.S. is making irrelevant remarks that it was surprised by our action," the North's statement said.

The Korean-American man was detained during a trip to North Korea in November on charges of committing hostile acts against the regime. He was later sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

King's trip had been expected to provide a rare opportunity for North Korea and the U.S. to open dialogue for improved relations. The two countries have no formal diplomatic relations.

North Korea has a track record of attempting to use detained Americans for domestic propaganda and as a leverage in dialogue with Washington. The North's stated goal is direct high-level talks with the Obama administration.

Several American citizens were detained in North Korea on similar charges in the past, but all were freed, largely unharmed. In 2009, former U.S. President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to bring home two female American journalists. The following year, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter won plaudits when he negotiated the release of American national Aijalon Mahli Gomes.

Meanwhile, a retired U.S. basketball star, Dennis Rodman, flew to Pyongyang on Sept. 3 for his second visit to the socialist country this year following his earlier visit in February, attracting keen attention if his visit is related to the release of Bae.

The ex-NBA star said, however, he returned to North Korea as a "friend" of young leader Kim Jong-un, but not as a diplomat, playing down speculation he may seek to help release the detained American.

Upon his arrival at Pyongyang's airport, Rodman told reporters that the purpose of his visit is "not to be a diplomat but to be a friend of the marshal," according to a video footage of China's state broadcaster CCTV on Sept. 4.

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