WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday urged North Korea to release two detained Americans to build goodwill with the United States, but ruled out providing a U.S. apology to Pyongyang to win their freedom.
Kerry said North Korea should free Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae for humanitarian reasons and because they are being held "inappropriately."
Miller is serving a six-year jail term on charges of espionage, after he allegedly ripped his tourist visa at Pyongyang's airport and demanded asylum. Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary with health problems, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for alleged anti-government activities.
North Korea on Tuesday released another American, Jeffrey Fowle, who had been held for six months after he was arrested for leaving a Bible in a nightclub.
Since then, North Korean legal experts have some unusual advice to offer: that Washington formally apologize to Pyongyang, and the country's autocratic leader will consider pardoning the other two.
"We have made it clear that no apology or other statement is in the offing," Kerry told a news conference after talks between the top diplomats and defense officials of the U.S. and South Korea.
"Our hope is they will recognize the goodwill that could be built and the gesture it would offer to the world of their willingness to try to open up a different diplomatic track," he said.
The U.S. and North Korea do not have formal diplomatic relations, and talks over the North's contentious nuclear weapons program, the most difficult issue for them, have stalled for years.
The U.S. retains 28,000 forces in South Korea to deter the North, and agreed Thursday to maintain wartime control of South Korean troops in the event of an attack for the foreseeable future. That delayed the transfer of authority to Seoul that had been scheduled for 2015.
There have, however, also been tentative signs of easing tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula.
North Korea recently sent a high-level delegation to South Korea, whose Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said Friday if the North accepts a proposal for a second round of high-level meetings, relations can improve. But he criticized the North for recent exchanges of fire at their land and sea border.
"What they speak and what they do seem to be inconsistent," Yun said.