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(LEAD) White House urges N. Korea to free U.S. citizens

2013/12/03 06:14

By Lee Chi-dong

WASHINGTON, Dec. 2 (Yonhap) -- The White House demanded Monday North Korea immediately release two American men held there -- Kenneth Bae and Merrill Newman.

"We are deeply concerned about the welfare of the U.S. citizens held in custody in the DPRK (North Korea)," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said at a press briefing.

He noted Bae, a 45-year-old Korean-American man, has been detained in the communist nation for more than a year.

Carney also called for the release of Newman, 85, who fought in the 1950-53 Korean War.

"Given Mr. Newman's advanced age and health conditions, we urge the DPRK to release Mr. Newman so he may return home and reunite with his family," he said.

Carney stopped short of confirming whether Vice President Joe Biden will raise the detention issue during his ongoing trip to Northeast Asia.

Biden is set to meet the top leaders of Japan, China and South Korea to discuss "all the important issues," Carney said without elaborating.

"I'm sure that those that are getting a lot of attention right now will be among those issues discussed," he said.

Bae, reportedly a Christian missionary, was arrested in November last year and was later sentenced to 15 years at hard labor for unspecified hostile acts against Pyongyang.

Newman was detained last month while traveling to the North on a tourist visa.

North Korea said Newman confessed to espionage and other crimes and said he killed civilians in clandestine operations during the Korean War.

The State Department maintained a cautious approach on the issue in front of reporters and TV cameras.

Jen Psaki, the department's spokeswoman, confirmed that the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang was allowed to meet with Newman on Saturday (local time). The embassy serves as the protecting power for American citizens in North Korea.

Responding to a barrage of follow-up questions in her daily press briefing, however, Psaki reiterated she does not have any other specifics.

On the authenticity of Newman's confession, reported by the North's official news agency, KCNA, Psaki said, "We just don't have any other further analysis."

   She added she has no plans to announce whether Washington will send a special envoy to Pyongyang for talks on freeing Bae and Newman.