November 10, 2014 / 8:28 AM / 3 years ago

North Korea nuclear issue not raised in prisoner release visit: Obama

BEIJING (Reuters) - The United States did not raise North Korea’s banned nuclear program during the visit by a senior U.S. official to secure the release of two American prisoners, U.S. President Barack Obama said on Monday.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during his meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott in Beijing November 10, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The United States was ready to engage Pyongyang on its nuclear program when the North is ready to talk seriously about denuclearization, Obama told a news conference during a summit of Asia-Pacific nations in Beijing.

Asked whether North Korea’s release of the U.S. citizens Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller showed a potential diplomatic opening, Obama said that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper did not conduct “high-level policy discussions” in Pyongyang on his trip to retrieve them.

“It did not touch on some of the broader issues of concern ... In particular, its development of nuclear capacity,” Obama said.

The United States continued to have a broader conflict with North Korea despite what Obama called “small gestures”, like the prisoner release.

“When and if North Korea is serious about denuclearization on the peninsula and is prepared to have that discussion, we are ready,” he said.

Bae and Miller landed on U.S. soil on Saturday, after the top-ranking U.S. intelligence officer traveled to North Korea to secure their release.

Bae, 46, a Korean-American missionary from Lynnwood north of Seattle, was arrested in North Korea in November 2012 and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor for crimes against the state. Miller, in his mid-20s, was reportedly convicted on an espionage charge and in custody since April, serving a six-year hard labor sentence.

North Korea, already under international sanctions for its nuclear and missile programs, has been on a diplomatic campaign to counter charges by a U.N. body that highlighted widespread human rights abuses and a move by some U.N. members to refer the state to an international tribunal.

But it was not clear what prompted Pyongyang to free the two men at this time.

Asked if Clapper’s visit had yielded any new perspective on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Obama said: “No.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping told South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Beijing that China hoped all sides can show sincerity and flexibility to resume six-country talks on North Korea’s nuclear program and find a mutually acceptable solution, state news agency Xinhua said.

Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Michael Martina; Writing by Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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