BERLIN/SEOUL U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday there had been no deal with North Korea in the release of one of three detained Americans but that Washington was willing to resume talks if the reclusive country took steps towards denuclearization.
Jeffrey Fowle, 56, was arrested in May for leaving a Bible at a sailor's club in the North Korean city of Chongjin. He was freed on Tuesday and flown home on a U.S. government plane.
“There was no quid pro quo and we are very concerned about the remaining American citizens who are in North Korea and we have great hopes that North Korea will see the benefits of releasing them also as soon as possible," Kerry said, referring to Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller.
North Korea's KCNA state news agency said Kim Jong Un, the country's leader, released the "criminal" Fowle, taking into consideration "repeated requests" from U.S. President Barack Obama.
Kerry, speaking in Berlin, expressed hope that stop-start denuclearisation talks with North Korea, already under wide-ranging U.N. sanctions, could start again soon, again holding out the prospect that the United States could eventually begin reducing its regional military presence.
"We’ve said from day one that if North Korea wants to rejoin the community of nations, it knows how to do it – it can come to the talks prepared to discuss denuclearisation," Kerry said.
"The United States is fully prepared, if they do that and begin that process, we are prepared to begin the process of reducing the need for American force and presence in the region because the threat itself will then be reduced."
So-called "six-party" talks, involving China, the United States, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas, have had a series of setbacks. The talks produced an agreement in 2005 to provide North Korea with aid in return for Pyongyang taking steps to suspend its nuclear programs.
But the deal was proclaimed dead in 2008 by Pyongyang and Washington.
"We need some indication from Kim Jong Un and the regime that they are in fact prepared to talk seriously about the central topics of the talks, which is the issue of denuclearisation. We do not want to return to talks just for the sake of talks – we’ve been there before," Kerry said.
Kerry noted that North Korea had stepped up its nuclear efforts and a senior State Department official ruled out any near-term plan to cut down the U.S. military presence.
"We are absolutely not considering reducing our presence in the region," the official said. "There is a long way to go in the process of denuclearisation before the question of future security arrangements on the Korean peninsula would be an issue."
The U.S. presence in South Korea is a key source of the anger of North Korea, which regularly threatens to attack the United States and destroy the South in a sea of flames.
Washington this month reiterated that Pyongyang must first take meaningful steps toward denuclearisation and refrain from provocative acts in order to resume talks.
Fowle was unexpectedly released amid growing international pressure. North Korea has been on a diplomatic campaign to counter charges by a U.N. body that highlighted widespread human rights abuses and a move by some U.N. members to refer the state to an international tribunal.
Yang Moo-jin, of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Fowle’s release and Kerry’s comments indicated there had been efforts made behind the scenes.
"North Korea is clearly seeking a breakthrough, in the form of a very high-level U.S. envoy visiting Pyongyang", preferably Kerry, Yang said.
In 2012, North Korea conducted a rocket launch shortly after an agreement with the United States to suspend nuclear and missile testing, putting a halt to efforts from Washington to re-engage in further disarmament talks.
Fowle returned to his home in southern Ohio after good treatment in North Korea, his lawyer said.
(Reporting by Tony Munroe and Jack Kim in Seoul, Michelle Martin and David Brunnstrom in Berlin, Kim Palmer in Cleveland, Ohio, and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Nick Macfie)