The US has proposed consultations with North Korea over its plans to send a special envoy to secure the release of three Americans locked up in the reclusive country, a news report said Wednesday.
The US State Department has expressed that it is "open to all possibilities" and willing to dispatch a higher-profile figure than Robert King, special envoy for North Korean human rights, Voice of America reported, citing a source well versed in relations between Pyongyang and Washington.
The North, however, responded that it would handle the detainees' "illegal acts" according to law, without naming any candidates.
The report came three days after the communist country sentenced Matthew Todd Miller to six years of hard labour for committing "hostile acts."
The man in his 20s was tried under Article 64 of the country's criminal code governing espionage, according to the Associated Press, which has a bureau in Pyongyang and managed to attend the trial.
North Korean state media has not elaborated on his charges but had accused him of tearing up his tourist visa and demanding asylum upon his entry in April this year.
In April 2013, Kenneth Bae was sentenced in April to 15 years of hard labour also for committing hostile acts after being arrested in November 2012 in Rason, a special economic zone near the Chinese border. A third prisoner, Jeffrey Fowle, is awaiting trial for the same charge.
Marie Harf, the department's deputy spokesperson, called the latest verdict "very severe" during a regular news briefing on Wednesday, urging Pyongyang again to free all of them.
Speculation has been growing over an imminent flight by an envoy since the three detainees pleaded for freedom and urged the administration to send one during a rare interview with CNN on Sept. 1.
Washington appears to have since somewhat eased its stance toward the mobilization of a high-profile figure, with department spokesperson Jen Psaki stressing the next day its commitment to "doing everything we can to see these individuals returned home."
Sydney Seiler, US special envoy for the six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing the North, confirmed at a recent forum that the two countries are in talks over the matter through the so-called New York channel based in the North's permanent mission to the UN.
King has been scheduled to travel to the isolated nation twice but the North's last-minute cancellations provoked the ire of the US government and the detainees' families.
In the past, previous captives were let go upon visits by high-profile figures such as former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
But Washington has been cautious not to be enmeshed in Pyongyang's "hostage diplomacy" in which the unruly regime uses US citizens as a bargaining chip to extract political concessions, food handouts or a relaxing of sanctions.
Negotiations for their freedom often set the stage for breaking the stalemate between the two old foes.
After the North tested a long-range rocket and an atomic device in 2009, it captured and sentenced two journalists to 12 years of hard labour for sneaking across the border from China. It then released them when Clinton came and met with then-leader Kim Jong-il.
The US has no formal diplomatic relations with North Korea and works for the prisoners' freedom through the Swedish Embassy as its protecting power.