NAIROBI U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday North Korea's release of two American journalists was separate from nuclear non-proliferation talks and reiterated a U.S. appeal for it to return to negotiations.
At a news conference in Nairobi with Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula, she denied that her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, had apologized during a visit to Pyongyang that secured the release of the two women.
"That's not true. That did not occur," she said.
The journalists work for Current TV, an American TV outlet co-founded by Bill Clinton's vice president, Al Gore. They were arrested for illegally entering North Korea from China.
They were each sentenced to 12 years' hard labor in June.
"We have always considered that a totally separate issue from our efforts to re-engage the North Koreans and have them return to the six-party talks and work for a commitment for the full, verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," Clinton said.
Analysts say Washington faces a tricky task trying to convince North Korea to give up ambitions of becoming a nuclear weapons power without being seen to reward it for repeated military acts or ignoring regional demands.
"The future of our relationships with the North Koreans is really up to them. They have a choice," Clinton said.
Pyongyang could either pursue a path filled with provocative actions, or decide to return to the negotiating table, she said.
"We have always said that there would be a chance to discuss bilateral matters with the North Koreans within that regional context. That is still the offer today, so it is up to them."
Clinton earlier told reporters traveling with her she was "very happy and relieved" that the two journalists were flying back to California with the former president to be reunited with their families.
"I spoke to my husband on the airplane and everything went well. We are extremely excited," she said. "It's just a good day to be able to see this happen."
In an interview with NBC's "Today" show, Clinton gave more details of her brief phone call with the former president.
"He was just so relieved and happy that it had been successful. He said it was very emotional, it was personally affecting to him," said Clinton, adding that their daughter Chelsea was a similar age to the released journalists.
Asked whether she thought it could change North Korea's behavior, Clinton replied that she did not know whether it would lead to a breakthrough.
"It's not something we're counting on," she said. "I hope that they realize we're sincere in our offer to have a different relationship with them if they are willing to move toward the full and verifiable denuclearization and I think the entire world would welcome that change on their part," she added.
(Writing by Daniel Wallis and Sue Pleming; Editing by David Clarke)