N Korea says not to free US citizens until former detainee stops 'babbling'

Kenneth Bae speaks during a news conference at U.S. Air Force Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Fort Lewis Washington
PHOTO: Reuters

SEOUL - North Korea will not negotiate with the United States over two American citizens it is holding until former detainee Kenneth Bae stops publicly talking about his time in prison, state media said on Monday.

Criticised over its human rights record for years, North Korea has made use of detained Americans in the past to extract high-profile visits from the United States, with which it has no formal diplomatic relations.

North Korea arrested Bae, a US missionary, in November 2012 and sentenced him to 15 years' hard labour for crimes against the state.

He was released two years later and has written an account of his detention in a memoir released in May. Since then, Bae has spoken about his experiences at several public appearances and given interviews to promote the book.

During his detention, Bae said, he realised he had become a"negotiating tool" for the North Koreans, some of whom he described as "brainwashed" in a recent interview in South Korea with a defector-run group that broadcasts into the North.

"As long as Kenneth Bae continues his babbling, we will not proceed with any compromise or negotiations with the United States on the subject of American criminals, and there will certainly not be any such thing as humanitarian action," the North's KCNA news agency said.

"If Bae continues, US criminals held in our country will be in the pitiful state of never being able to set foot in their homeland once again".

Pyongyang is holding two US citizens, both of whom it has tried and sentenced to hard labour.

In March, Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old student of the University of Virginia, was sentenced to 15 years' hard labour for trying to steal a propaganda banner bearing the name of former leader Kim Jong Il.

In April, a North Korean court convicted Korean-American missionary Kim Dong Chul of crimes against the state and sentenced him to 10 years' hard labour.

Last year, Canadian missionary Hyeon Soo Lim was sentenced to hard labour for life for subversion of the state.

The United States and Canada both strongly advise citizens not to travel to North Korea. This May, the US State Department said Americans who travelled there despite the warnings risked "unduly harsh sentences".