The announcement of the American's detainment could be a signal from the North that it wants dialogue with the United States, said Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea. He said trips by former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter to North Korea to secure the release of other detained Americans created a mood for U.S.-North Korea talks.
"North Korea knows sanctions will follow its rocket launch. But in the long run, it needs an excuse to reopen talks after the political atmosphere moves past sanctions," Cheong said.
Cheong said he expects that the American will be tried and convicted in coming months. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has the power to grant amnesty and will exercise it as a bargaining chip, Cheong said.
Nuland said earlier this week that Washington had been trying to reach out to Kim.
"Instead, that was met not only with an abrogation of agreements that had been made by the previous North Korean regime, but by missile activity both in April and in December," she told reporters.
She said Washington had no choice but to put pressure on Pyongyang, and was discussing with its allies how to "further isolate" the regime.
In April 2009, a North Korean rocket launch took place while two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were in North Korean custody after allegedly trying to sneak into the country across the Tumen River dividing the North from China.
They were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor before being released on humanitarian grounds after Clinton flew to Pyongyang to negotiate their release.
Subsequently, three other Americans were arrested and eventually released by North Korea. All three are believed to have been accused of illegally spreading Christianity.
North Korea has several sanctioned churches in Pyongyang but frowns on the distribution of Bibles and other religious materials by foreigners. Interaction between North Koreans and foreigners is strictly regulated.
AP writers Foster Klug and Sam Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and Doug Esser in Seattle contributed to this report.
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