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North Korea Confirms Detention Of Third American As Tensions Grow

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

North Korea now says it is holding a third American. An accounting instructor was trying to leave the country when officials detained him. He's being held while officials look into his alleged crime, though it is not clear what that crime is. Every time it happens, it brings up the question of North Korea's motivation. Ambassador Joseph DeTrani was formerly the State Department's special envoy for negotiations with North Korea, and he's with us now. Welcome to the show.

JOSEPH DETRANI: Thank you, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So why do you think North Korea does this? Why does it detain Americans? I mean, often they're accused of crimes, hostility towards the state of North Korea. But what did they get out of it?

DETRANI: You know, it's so difficult working with the North Koreans to determine their motivation. What are they getting out of it? I think they make it very clear that they will not tolerate anyone who treats them with nothing but total respect.

MCEVERS: So there's a sense that they do consider criticism a crime, and that you're going to be punished for that crime.

DETRANI: They pursue it with vigor. And we saw that going way back to 2009, with the two American journalists who were in North Korea, although they had no visa. They had 12 years of hard labor. Yes, they react with great vigor. And the punishment is unbelievable. And this is the concern that I think the State Department certainly has with Americans traveling into North Korea.

MCEVERS: At a time when President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson say they are open to having talks with North Korea, there's a question of whether or not detaining Americans like this is a kind of bargaining chip as a way to get the Americans faster to the negotiating table.

DETRANI: I think that's a fair assumption. I personally think when President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson made the comments about being willing to negotiate, the focus indeed was and is on their nuclear and missile programs and the commitment that North Korea would have to comprehensive verifiable denuclearization. I mean, that's the primary core issue that has to be addressed by the North Koreans.

That does not mean, however, that the detainees will not be part of that dialogue because I - from my experience, I would say one of the first requirements we would have is to show goodwill. And the release of the American hostages would lend for a decent atmosphere to pursue the core issues of comprehensive verifiable denuclearization.

MCEVERS: Remind us very quickly who the other two Americans who are currently being detained in North Korea are.

DETRANI: Well, we have a young man, a student at University of Virginia who was detained - is detained, has 15 years of hard labor in front of him. And he had taken a poster out of a hotel. And the other gentleman is - has religious inclinations, a Korean-American who was there for a period on - with a visa. They can hold you for periods of time. And the lack of communications is stifling in many ways.

We rely obviously on the Swedish ambassador to be doing some of the negotiations for the U.S. so that we have some insight into what's going on. And the families of these detained Americans can have some comfort that there is a dialogue and indeed that the U.S. is very concerned about the well-being of these Americans.

MCEVERS: Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, formerly the State Department's special envoy for negotiations with North Korea. Thank you very much.

DETRANI: Thank you, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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