WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Just before one of three Americans detained in North Korea is due to go on trial, a senior U.S. official on Friday accused the communist Asian country of using U.S. citizens as human “pawns.”
North Korea’s state media earlier this week reported that Matthew Miller, a 26-year-old from Bakersfield, California, arrested in April for tearing up his visa upon arrival in the isolated country, would go on trial on Sunday. It did not say what charge he faced.
The U.S. State Department has called on North Korea to release Miller and two other detained Americans, Jeffrey Fowle and Kenneth Bae, on humanitarian grounds.
Asked what could be expected from North Korea this weekend, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel, the senior U.S. diplomat for East Asia, showed no sign of optimism.
“This is the way that they play,” he told Reuters. “They use human beings, and in this case Americans citizens, as pawns. And we find that both objectionable and distressing.”
The brief North Korean statement issued on Sept. 7 did not mention Miller’s fellow U.S. citizen Jeffrey Fowle, 56, who was arrested in May after he left a Bible in the restroom of a sailor’s club in the port town of Chongjin.
U.S. missionary Kenneth Bae has been held by North Korea since December 2012 and is currently serving a sentence of 15 years hard labor for crimes North Korea said amounted to a plot to overthrow the state.
At the start of this month, international media was granted rare access to the detained Americans, who in separate interviews all called on the United States to secure their early release.
North Korea, which is under heavy U.N. sanctions related to its nuclear and missile programs, is widely believed to be using the detained U.S. citizens to extract a high-profile visit from Washington, with whom it has no formal diplomatic relations.
In the past, former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have visited North Korea to secure the release of detained Americans.
The United States has offered in the past to send Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, to discuss Bae’s case, but North Korea has twice canceled his visits.
A U.S. official said last week that Washington had made clear to North Korea that it was prepared to send “an appropriate emissary” to facilitate the release of the Americans.
“But as long as North Korea imposes unacceptable conditions and refuses to provide reasonable assurances they will, in fact, be released, it’s just not possible,” he said.
On Friday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf declined to detail U.S. efforts to secure the release of the three men, but said the offer to send King still stood. King was seen at the State Department in Washington on Friday.
Reporting by David Brunnstrom, additional reporting by Warren Strobel and Lesley Wroughton; editing by G Crosse