President Barack Obama is tempering expectations for a thaw in relations between the United States and North Korea, saying the secret talks to free two American prisoners were not the precursor to nuclear negotiations.
Asked Monday whether the prisoner negotiations helped him gain any insight into North Korea’s mercurial young leader Kim Jong Un and his approach to dealing with the U.S., Obama said curtly, “No.”
The president’s first extensive public comments on the release of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller came as he opened a three day visit to China, North Korea’s chief benefactor. U.S. officials said the timing of Obama’s decision to pursue their release was not related to his trip, though they wouldn’t speculate on Pyongyang’s motivations.
Obama said he dispatched James Clapper, his director of national intelligence, to North Korea for negotiations after receiving “an indication that there was the possibility of the release.” He did not elaborate on what kind of signals the U.S. received from North Korea or how messages were conveyed.
Bae and Miller arrived in the U.S. Saturday night, accompanied by Clapper. Their release was the latest twist in the strained relationship between the Obama administration and the young North Korean leader, who has been both provocative and conciliatory toward the U.S. since taking the helm of the impoverished and isolated nation.
The Obama administration has kept quiet about the details of Clapper’s discussions, though the president said Monday that they were “not high-level policy discussions” and did not touch on Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations. He added that “when and if” North Korea agrees to pursue denuclearization, the U.S. will be “very open” to having discussions.
However, Obama said that would require more than “small gestures” like the release of the Americans.
“Until that time, there’s going to be a core problem between us,” he added.
U.S. officials have said there was no quid pro quo that led to the release of the Americans. Bae had been held since 2012 and was serving a 15-year sentence for alleged anti-government activities. Miller was arrested after entering the country in April. Authorities accused him of planning to infiltrate a North Korea prison.
Their release came three weeks after a third American, Jeffrey Fowle of Miamisburg, Ohio, was set free by North Korea and put on a U.S. government plane.
Obama’s comments came following a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on the sidelines of a broader Asia-Pacific summit.
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