North Korea says now not time to discuss US detainees

Seoul (AFP) –


North Korea appeared to link the fate of its US prisoners to ongoing tensions on Tuesday, saying now is not the right time to discuss their release.

Three Americans, accused of various crimes against the state, are behind bars in the hermit nation, which is engaged in a tense standoff with the administration of US President Donald Trump over its banned missile and nuclear weapons programs.

"The issue of detained Americans is not a subject of discussion given the current state of... relations," a spokesman for the North's foreign ministry was quoted as saying by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

Pyongyang has arrested and jailed several US citizens in the past decade, often releasing them only after high-profile visits by US officials or former presidents.

In June, student Otto Warmbier -- who was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for allegedly stealing a political poster while visiting Pyongyang as a tourist -- was sent home in a coma. He died a week later.

His release was secured through back channel negotiations with Pyongyang led by the US envoy for North Korea policy Joseph Yun. Media reports over the weekend suggested similar talks have continued.

Last week, the North released a Canadian pastor on medical parole after having held him for more than two years.

Tensions have been mounting between Washington and Pyongyang since the North's testing of two intercontinental ballistic missiles that appeared to bring much of the US within range.

Responding to the tests, Trump warned the North of "fire and fury like the world has never seen", while Pyongyang threatened to fire missiles close to the US territory of Guam.

On Tuesday, leader Kim Jong-Un said he would hold off the planned missile strike, but warned the highly provocative move would go ahead in the event of further "reckless actions" by Washington.