N. Korea called off envoy visit because of US military drills

SEOUL - North Korea said late on Saturday it withdrew an invitation for a US envoy to visit the country to discuss the fate of a jailed American citizen because US military drills on the peninsula made humanitarian dialogue impossible.

Robert King, special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, was scheduled to go to Pyongyang last Friday on what the US State Department called a "humanitarian mission" to secure the release of Kenneth Bae

Bae, a Korean American who had worked as a Christian missionary, had been convicted of crimes against the North Korean state and is serving a 15-year hard labour sentence.

The North's Foreign Ministry said military drills last week by the United States and South Korea involving a B-52 bomber flight over the peninsula was "the most striking manifestation of the offensive and aggressive nature" of the exercise.

"The US thus beclouded the hard-won atmosphere of humanitarian dialogue in a moment," an unnamed ministry spokesman said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.

"Despite the fact that we clearly notified the US side of this through the New York contact channel, it is something surprising that the US is making irrelevant remarks that it was surprised by our action."

The United States and South Korea staged the annual computer simulated drills last week that test the allies' combined defensive readiness against possible North Korean aggression.

North Korea reacts angrily to military drills by the South and the United States and raised tensions sharply in March this year with threats of missile and nuclear attacks during another set of exercise that is also conducted annually.

King's trip was seen as a potential signal of the start of a gradual thaw in relations between Washington and Pyongyang.