South Korean President Moon Jae-in says North Korea should swiftly return South Koreans and Americans detained in the reclusive nation and that Pyongyang has “a heavy responsibility” in the death of a US university student.
Moon, who is scheduled to visit Washington next week, also said in an interview with CBS on Tuesday he hoped to draw North Korea into negotiations on its nuclear program by the end of the year.
Dozens of North Korean missile launches and two nuclear bomb tests since the beginning of last year have heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang has vowed to develop a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the US mainland.
Moon’s remarks on CBS’s This Morning program came the day after the death of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old student who had been held prisoner in North Korea for 17 months. Warmbier died at a Cincinnati hospital just days after North Korea released him from captivity in a coma, his family said.
Warmbier was arrested while visiting as a tourist and accused of trying to steal an item bearing a propaganda slogan, according to North Korean media. Doctors caring for him last week described him as having extensive brain damage that left him in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness”.
Moon said that while “we cannot know for sure that North Korea killed Mr Warmbier … I believe it is quite clear that they have a heavy responsibility in the process that led to Mr Warmbier’s death.
“I believe we must now have the perception that North Korea is an irrational regime,” said Moon, who was elected in May.
South Korea’s Blue House on Tuesday cited Moon separately as saying: “It is very deplorable that North Korea does not respect human rights.”
North Korea has detained two Korean-American academics and a missionary, a Canadian pastor and three South Korean nationals who were doing missionary work there.
US President Donald Trump blamed the “brutality of the North Korean regime” for Warmbier’s death.
North Korea said last month that it was its sovereign right to “ruthlessly punish” US citizens it had detained for crimes against the state.
Asked about the possibility of any pre-emptive strikes against Pyongyang, Moon told CBS that the issue could be raised at his summit with Trump but that such discussions were more likely to come later.
Moon, who was elected on a plan to engage in talks with North Korea, said he agreed with Trump on being willing to participate in a dialogue with North Korea under certain conditions.