WASHINGTON -- The rare secret meetings the United States and North Korea held about a long-detained American student are unlikely to lead to resumption of broader nuclear talks as long as three other US citizens are held in the communist nation, experts said Wednesday.
Amb. Joseph Yun, US special representative for North Korea policy, held a meeting in Oslo with senior North Korean diplomats last month and another in New York over the detained American citizens in what is believed to be the first time officials of the two countries have met face-to-face in perhaps years.
During the course of the meetings, North Korea confessed that one of the four hostages, University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, had been in a coma for more than a year, and President Donald Trump dispatched Yun to Pyongyang to bring the 22-year-old home after 17 months in captivity.
The secret meetings came as tensions are running high between Washington and Pyongyang, with the North carrying out a series of ballistic missile tests and the US working hard to drive up pressure on the regime, and spurred speculation the two sides might be closer to resuming long-stalled nuclear talks.
But experts said such chances are not high.
"It is too early to predict how the situation will develop. I do not think political level talks will be sustainable without the release of the other three American detainees," Scott Snyder, chief Korea analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, said.
The Washington Post reported that while approving Yun's meetings with the North Koreans, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was "adamant that Yun participate in the meetings only under the precondition that the detained Americans be the focus of the agenda."
The paper expressed outrage over Warmbier's comatose condition, raising suspicions that he could have gone through "horrendous mistreatment" in the North. In an editorial, it also called for the Trump administration to rev up sanctions on the North.
Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said that the North's detention of a comatose student for more than a year "shows they have sunk to a lower level of depravity than I imagined."
"What if he had died in captivity? It is both callous and really dumb on their part, sending a clear message -? we don't care if he lives or dies," Manning said.
As to the possibility of talks resuming, the expert said the North does not appear ready for negotiations.
"Talking is always better than not talking. But I see little indication that they are serious about restarting denuclearization talks. They walked away from the September 2005 accord, so the ball is in their court. They must demonstrate sincerity," he said.
If the North wants to restart talks, it should demonstrate its seriousness with tangible signs, such as a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, he said.
"But for starters, if they don't resolve these humanitarian concerns and release the three American hostages, it is difficult to see why we should take them seriously in regard to dialogue," Manning said.
Alan Romberg, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, also said he's pessimistic about the prospects of talks.
"If North Korea has something constructive to say about nuclear issues, I assume we will listen. But the fact that North Korea held Mr. Warmbier for a year without adequate medical treatment will create a very negative climate for any talks, even setting aside his detention in the first place," he said.
The three other detainees are all Korean-American men. Two of them, Kim Hak-song and Kim Sang-dok, were detained earlier this year, while the third, Kim Dong-chul, was arrested in October 2015 and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor on charges of espionage and subversion.
American visitors have often been detained in North Korea on charges of anti-state and other unspecified crimes. The widespread views are that the communist nation has used the detentions as bargaining chips in its negotiations with Washington.
Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary, served two years of detention in the North before being released in November 2014 when then-US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made a secret trip to Pyongyang to win his release and that of another US detainee. (Yonhap)