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North Korea to free American being detained there

Soldiers from the Korean People's Army look south while on duty in the Joint Security Area. February 16, 2008. (Edward N. Johnson/U.S. Army)
November 16, 2018

North Korea announced Friday it would free an American citizen who has been held in the country after illegally entering a month ago.

The government-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the citizen was detained Oct. 16 for illegally entering the country, and that the American said he “was under the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency,” the South China Morning Post reported. The U.S. citizen was entering North Korea from China.

The New York Times reported that this was not the first time the man, identified as Bruce Byron Lowrance, had tried to enter North Korea – last November he tried to enter from South Korea but was stopped.

The KCNA did not say exactly when the man would be released.

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The quick release of this American is a stark contrast to what happened to American student Otto Warmbier, who was detained and imprisoned in North Korea for 17 months and ultimately died from lack of oxygen and blood to the brain, a coroner said. Warmbier’s parents have publicly said their son was tortured, and that he came home blind, deaf and with his teeth horribly rearranged.

Warmbier, a University of Virginia undergrad student, was medically evacuated from North Korea through the efforts of then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Trump Administration. He was returned to the United States on June 13, 2017, in a coma. He died not long after, on June 19, 2017. Warmbier had been in a coma for 15 of the 17 months he was detained in North Korea.

He was detained in January 2016 in Pyongyang on his way home from North Korea. North Korean officials said they had footage of him trying to steal a political banner that was hanging on the wall in his hotel. Warmbier was found guilty during a one-hour trial in North Korea’s Supreme Court.

Warmbier had been serving a 15-year prison term with hard labor for alleged anti-state acts.

This past May, North Korea also released three American detainees, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled there.

Typically, North Korea will hold Americans for much longer than a month.

Often it takes a high-profile American official to travel to the country and ask for the captive’s release. This most recent expedient gesture is being viewed as a sign of good will from North Korea amid rather tense talks between the two nations while they work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

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The New York Times had reported on a new report Monday that shows satellite images indicating North Korea is still developing ballistic missiles that could hold nuclear warheads at 16 secret military bases, including at least one not previously identified. South Korean claimed this was “nothing new,” and President Donald Trump claimed to have already known about the bases.

The U.S. earlier this month abruptly delayed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s high-level talk on denuclearization with a top North Korean official in New York City, citing scheduling as the issue but not saying when the meeting would be rescheduled.

This came amid rhetoric from North Korea that the U.S. should ease up on sanctions if its wants to achieve denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula – tensions between North Korea and the U.S. recently rose when North Korea threatened to resume its nuclear weapons program if the U.S. doesn’t lift economic sanctions.

Pompeo had in October met again with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and said the meeting was “productive.”

Kim had later in the day agreed to a second summit with President Donald Trump at the “earliest possible date.”

However, earlier this month, North Korea threatened to possibly restart its nuclear weapons program if the United States doesn’t lift economic sanctions. Trump said in September that sanctions will remain in effect against North Korea until denuclearization takes place.

Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has been in the international spotlight throughout the year, and it was a major theme of the Trump-Kim summit this past June.

Vice President Mike Pence said this week that Kim and Trump will hold another summit in 2019.