North Korea on Friday said it would deport an American citizen it detained on suspicion of illegally entering the country, an apparent concession to the United States that came even as it announced the test of a newly developed but unspecified “ultramodern” weapon that Washington will view as a pressuring tactic.
The two whiplash announcements, which seemed aimed at both appeasing and annoying the U.S., suggest that Pyongyang wants to keep alive dialogue with Washington as it struggles to express its frustration at stalled nuclear diplomacy.
North Korea in the past has held arrested American citizens for an extended period before high-profile U.S. figures traveled to Pyongyang to secure their freedom. Last year, American university student Otto Warmbier died days after he was released in a coma from North Korea after 17 months in captivity.
On Friday, the official Korean Central News Agency said American national Bruce Byron Lowrance was detained on Oct. 16 for illegally entering the country from China. It said he told investigators that he was under the “manipulation” of the CIA. It was not clear whether North Korea’s spelling of the man’s name was correct, and past reports from Pyongyang have contained incorrect spellings.
A short KCNA dispatch said North Korea decided to deport him but did not say why and when.
The decision matches its general push for engagement and diplomacy with the United States this year after a string of weapons tests in 2017, and a furious U.S. response, had some fearing war on the Korean peninsula.
In May, North Korea released three American detainees in a goodwill gesture weeks ahead of leader Kim Jong Un’s June summit with President Trump in Singapore. The three Americans returned home on a flight with Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo. Weeks after the summit, North Korea returned the remains of dozens of presumed U.S. soldiers killed during the Korean War.
The United States, South Korea and others have previously accused North Korea of using foreign detainees to wrest diplomatic concessions.
Some foreigners have said after their release that their declarations of guilt had been coerced while in North Korean custody. Warmbier and other previous American detainees were imprisoned for a variety of purported crimes, including subversion, anti-state activities and spying.
The latest detained American is probably a man that South Korea deported last year, according to South Korean police.
In November 2017, a 58-year-old man from Louisiana was caught in South Korea after spending two nights in the woods in a civilian-restricted area near the border with North Korea. The name written in his passport was Lowrance Bruce Byron, said police officers at Gyeonggi Bukbu Provincial Police Agency.
Before his deportation, the man told interrogators that he “knows lots of people in the Trump administration so that he wants to work as a bridge between the United States and North Korea to help improve their ties [that were] worsened by Warmbier’s death,” said one of the police officers who investigated the man. He requested anonymity, citing department rules.
Earlier Friday, KCNA said Kim observed the successful test of an unspecified “newly developed ultramodern tactical weapon,” though it didn’t describe what the weapon was.
It didn’t appear to be a test of a nuclear device or a long-range missile with the potential to target the United States. A string of such tests last year pushed relations on the peninsula to unusually high tension before the North turned to engagement and diplomacy.
Still, any mention of weapons testing could influence the direction of stalled diplomatic efforts spearheaded by Washington and aimed at ridding Pyongyang of its nuclear weapons.
Experts say the weapon test was probably an expression of anger by North Korea at U.S.-led international sanctions and ongoing small-scale military drills between South Korea and the United States. It’s the first publicly known field inspection of a weapons test by Kim since he observed the testing of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile last November, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry.
“It’s North Korea-style coercive diplomacy. North Korea is saying, ‘If you don’t listen to us, you will face political burdens,’” said analyst Shin Beomchul of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
Earlier this month, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry warned it could bring back its policy of bolstering its nuclear arsenal if it doesn’t receive sanctions relief.
Shin said the weapon North Korea tested could be a missile, artillery, an antiaircraft gun, a drone or other high-tech conventional weapons systems. Yang Wook, a Seoul-based military expert, said a “tactical weapon” in North Korea refers to “a weapon aimed at striking South Korea, including U.S. military bases” there, so the North may have tested a short-range missile or a multiple-rocket launch system.
Diplomacy has stalled since the Singapore summit, with Washington pushing for more action on nuclear disarmament and North Korea insisting that the U.S. first lift sanctions and approve a peace declaration formally ending the Korean War.
But Friday’s report from Pyongyang was noticeably less belligerent than past announcements of weapons tests, and didn’t focus on North Korean claims of U.S. and South Korean hostility. Yang said the latest North Korean test won’t completely break down nuclear diplomacy, though more questions would be raised about how sincere the government is about its commitment to denuclearization.
Vice President Mike Pence, attending a Southeast Asian summit in Singapore, cited the “great progress” made on North Korea but said more had to be done.
A year and a half ago, “nuclear tests were taking place, missiles were flying over Japan, and there were threats and propagations against our nation and nations in the region,” Pence said. “Today, no more missiles are flying, no more nuclear tests, our hostages have come home, and North Korea has begun anew to return fallen American heroes from the Korean War to our soil. We made great progress, but there’s more work to be done.”
Pence stressed that U.N. sanctions had to remain enforced.
North Korea said that the test took place at the Academy of National Defense Science and that Kim couldn’t suppress his “passionate joy” at its success. He was described as “so excited to say that another great work was done by the defense scientists and munitions industrial workers to increase the defense capability of the country.”
Last year’s series of increasingly powerful weapons tests, many experts believe, put North Korea on the brink of a viable arsenal of nuclear-tipped missiles that could target anywhere in the mainland United States.