North Korea allowed three detained Americans to speak briefly with Western reporters Monday, and the prisoners all asked for the United States to have a high-ranking official negotiate directly for their release.
By allowing the interviews, North Korea is signaling it may be prepared to make a deal for the prisoners' release but first wants direct talks with the United States, former U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson says.
"The North Koreans are sending signals to the U.S. that they are ready to deal,'' Richardson, who has negotiated with North Korean leaders for release of detained Americans, told USA TODAY. "Specifically, they are saying that the three Americans are bargaining chips.''
North Korean officials orchestrated brief interviews with the three Americans by the Associated Press and CNN. Two of them said they expect to face trial soon, though they do not know the specific charges against them or potential punishment.
North Korea says Jeffrey Edward Fowle, 56, of Miamisburg, Ohio, and Matthew Miller, 24, of Bakersfield, Calif., committed acts that violated their legal status as tourists.
Kenneth Bae, 46, a Korean American serving a 15-year term at hard labor, was allowed to speak with the journalists at a meeting center in Pyongyang. He said his health has deteriorated at the labor camp, where he has lost 15 pounds and suffers back pain. His family has said his health problems include diabetes, an enlarged heart and liver problems.
Richardson said in a phone interview that the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Un is eager to regain world attention after the global focus has been on crises elsewhere.
Richardson called the latest moves encouraging and said they offer the first real sign indicating that the young leader, who has been more difficult to read than his father and grandfather in previous regimes, wants to negotiate.
"The North Koreans want to come back on the world stage – that it's not just ISIS and Ukraine and the Middle East, that they're an entity to be dealt with,'' said Richardson, a former New Mexico governor and congressman who was U.N. ambassador and Energy secretary during the Clinton administration.
The United States and partner countries in six-party talks with North Korea have sought positive steps on nuclear proliferation before agreeing to direct talks.
"I think most importantly they were saying to the U.S., 'In exchange for talking to us, we're ready to release the three Americans,' " Richardson said. "And what the U.S. is saying is 'You have to take some concrete steps on denuclearization.' That's the impasse.
"But clearly, the North Koreans are signaling their interest to negotiate. ... They want to get back in the negotiation loop. That's new for Kim Jong Un. Nobody knew what he wanted to do,'' Richardson said.
"This is a pretty good sign,'' he said. "The downside is that these Americans are being used as pawns, bargaining chips, and they're obviously not in good shape even though they seem to look good.''
AP and CNN said North Korean officials were present to monitor the interviews, conducted separately.
"The only hope that I have is to have someone from the U.S. come," Bae said. "But so far, the latest I've heard is that there has been no response yet. So I believe that officials here are waiting for that."
Terri Chung, Bae's sister, told CNN, "It is clear from the video that he is under a lot of stress. And he talks about his health failing and being in complete isolation for almost two years. And it is devastating for our family to see that on TV."
Richardson said he was most concerned about Bae's deteriorating health, saying he appeared "traumatized'' during the video interview.
North Korea says Miller, 24, entered the country April 10 with a tourist visa but tore it up at the airport and shouted that he wanted to seek asylum. Miller refused to comment on whether he sought asylum, AP reported.
Fowle, who arrived in North Korea on April 29, is suspected of leaving a Bible in a nightclub in the northern port city of Chongjin. Christian proselytizing is a crime in North Korea. Fowle, a municipal worker, has a wife and three children, 12 and younger.
All three men said they have signed statements admitting their guilt, CNN said.
"Within a month, I could be sharing a jail cell with Ken Bae," Fowle said. He said he hasn't spoken with his family for three weeks. "I'm desperate to get back to them."