BERLIN/SEOUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the release of one of three Americans held in North Korea and said Washington is willing to resume talks with Pyongyang if it takes steps towards de-nuclearization.
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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 from Pyongyang on a U.S. government plane, without, Kerry said, any quid pro quo.
North Korea’s KCNA state news agency said Kim Jong Un, the country’s leader, released Fowle taking into consideration “repeated requests” of U.S. President Barack Obama.
“The criminal was handed over to the U.S. side according to a relevant legal procedure, ” KCNA said.
Kerry, speaking in Berlin, expressed hope that denuclearization talks with Pyongyang 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 de-nuclearisation, ” 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, ” he said.
The large U.S. military presence in South Korea is a key source of the reclusive North’s ire.
Earlier this month, Washington reiterated that Pyongyang must first take meaningful steps toward denuclearization and refrain from provocative acts in order to resume talks on its nuclear program.
North Korea is under U.N. sanctions over its nuclear and rocket programs.
Fowle was released amid growing international pressure on North Korea over its human rights record. He flew home to his family in Ohio. U.S. television footage on Wednesday morning showed him arriving at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton.
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.
“We hope that the dynamics can develop in the next weeks, months perhaps where we could get back to talks and the United States is absolutely prepared to do that, ” Kerry 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 engage in further disarmament talks.
Kerry said the U.S. was in contact with the families of the other two detained Americans, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller, and hoped they would also be released soon.
(Reporting by Tony Munroe in Seoul, Michelle Martin in Berlin and Susan Heavey in Washinton; Editing by Nick Macfie)