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US envoy in N Korea as prisoner row mounts

Arrival comes hours after North cancelled visit of second envoy, due to discuss future of jailed US man Kenneth Bae.

Last updated: 10 Feb 2014 11:15
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The US and South Korea carry out annual military drills, which Pyongyang says are invasion rehearsals [AP]

A former US ambassador to South Korea has arrived in Pyongyang, hours after North Korea cancelled a US envoy's visit to jailed Korean American Kenneth Bae.

The North's official Korean Central News Agency carried a brief report on the arrival of Donald Gregg and other members of the Pacific Century Institute, without specifying their mission.

It was unclear whether his trip aimed to secure the release of Bae, who was sentenced to 15 years hard labour in 2012 for alleged sedition, but his arrival in Pyongyang came hours after North Korea cancelled another US envoy's visit to Bae.

The US state department said it was "deeply disappointed" by the North's decision on Monday to rescind the invitation to Robert King, the US special envoy for North Korean human rights issues.

King had hoped to secure the release of Kenneth Bae, a tour operator, was described by a North Korean court as a "militant Christian evangelist".

Second cancellation

It is the second time King has been rebuffed. North Korea previously scrapped an invitation at the last minute for him to discuss Bae's case at the end of August.

The cancellation came ahead of annual South Korea-US military drills which Pyongyang has urged Seoul to cancel.

The allies' Combined Forces Command said on Monday that the "Key Resolve" and "Foal Eagle" exercises would run from February 24-April 18.

A total of 12,700 US forces will participate in the two drills, the CFC said, adding that North Korea had been informed of the dates and the "non-provocative" nature of the manoeuvres.

North Korea, which views the annual drills as rehearsals for invasion, has already warned the South of an "unimaginable holocaust" if they go ahead.

Threat to family reunions

The start of the drills will overlap with a reunion for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War scheduled to be held between February 20 and 25 at the North's Mount Kumgang resort.

Seoul and Pyongyang reached an agreement on the reunion last Wednesday, but only a day later the North threatened to pull out, citing US bomber sorties and "slanderous" reports in the South's press.

Park Geun-Hye, the South's president, has urged Pyongyang to honour the agreement for the sake of the family members, many of whom are in advanced age and frail health.

North Korea had cancelled a reunion event in September at the last minute and many expect it will use the joint military exercises as an excuse to do the same this time around.

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