(Reuters) - The United States on Thursday signaled North Korea could improve its strained ties with Washington by releasing U.S. citizens, as former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson became involved in the case of an 85-year-old American held by Pyongyang.
North Korea last month detained Merrill Newman, a veteran of the Korean War and a retiree from Palo Alto, California, taking him off a plane as he was about to leave the reclusive Asian country, which he had been visiting on a tourist visa.
North Korea has also held Korean-American Christian missionary Kenneth Bae since November 2012, sentencing him to 15 years of hard labor. His detention followed a long series of acrimonious exchanges between North Korea and the United States over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
“North Korea could send a very different signal about its interest in having a different sort of relationship with the United States were it to take that step of releasing our citizens, and it’s a matter of some wonderment to me that they’ve haven’t yet moved on that,” Glyn Davies, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, told reporters in Beijing.
Months of hostile rhetoric early this year pushed tension to some of the highest levels in years with North Korea, which has conducted nuclear tests, threatening a nuclear strike on the United States and South Korea.
The United States has not formally identified Newman as detained by North Korea, citing privacy laws. His detention has been confirmed by his son and neighbors in his retirement community in Northern California.
“This is obviously one of those moments when North Korea needs to figure out where it’s heading and recognize that the United States of America is not engaging in belligerent and threatening behavior,” Secretary of State John Kerry told MSNBC television.
“These are all very , very disturbing choices by the North Koreans,” Kerry said.
Richardson, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the 1990s, has revived his role as periodic troubleshooter on North Korean issues, including efforts to free detained Americans. In January, he delivered a letter for Bae to officials in North Korea.
Asked by email whether Richardson was looking into the Newman’s detention, spokeswoman Caitlin Kelleher told Reuters: “Governor Richardson is involved in that he is in touch with his North Korean contacts.” She gave no further details.
The detention of Newman occurred one day after he and his tour guide spoke with North Korean authorities at a meeting in which his military service in Korea was discussed, his son, Jeff Newman, told CNN on Wednesday.
Newman served as a U.S. infantry officer in the Korean War and later worked as a manufacturing and finance executive before retiring in 1984, according to a biography of him in a February 2012 newsletter from Channing House, his retirement home.
The Korean War started in 1950 when the United States rallied the United Nations to send troops to counter the North’s invasion of the South. The war ended in a stalemate in 1953, with the absence of a peace treaty resulting in a demilitarized zone that now separates North and South Korea. Pyongyang commemorated the day with a massive military parade and declared victory as well.
Additional reporting by Leslie Wroughton; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Cynthia Osterman