North Korea is accusing the US of seizing an official diplomatic package from a team of diplomats headed home from a UN summit on the rights of the disabled – an act it said was tantamount to “mugging” its delegates, who enjoy diplomatic immunity.
The North's foreign ministry says agents from the Department of Homeland Security, along with local police, intercepted the diplomats at John F Kennedy International Airport on Friday, a day after the North released 22-year old American student Otto Warmbier, who was freed and sent back to the US in a coma, Reuters reported.
The incident marks the conclusion of a brief episode of detente between the North and US that culminated in Warmbier's release. For their part, officials at the State Department and White House have refused to confirm or deny the story, and won’t talk about it. As evidenced by Warmbier’s release, the US and North Korea appear to have opened a dialogue, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that the two powers are continuing to discuss the possibility of releassing three other Americans being held by the North.
The North's Foreign Ministry spokesman said the delegation was returning from a U.N. conference on the rights of persons with disabilities "was literally mugged" at the John F. Kennedy airport in "an illegal and heinous act of provocation."
"Diplomats of a sovereign state are being robbed of a diplomatic package in the middle of New York where the headquarters of the United Nations is located and that serves as the venue for international meetings including the United Nations General Assembly," the spokesman said.
"This clearly shows that the U.S. is a felonious and lawless gangster state," the spokesman said in comments carried by the North's official KCNA news agency.
"The international community needs to seriously reconsider whether or not New York, where such an outrageous mugging is rampant, is fit to serve as the venue for international meetings," KCNA said.
KCNA said the incident took place on June 16 when more than 20 officials who claimed to be from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and police "made a violent assault like gangsters to take away the diplomatic package from the diplomats."
The diplomats were in possession of a valid diplomatic courier certificate, KCNA said.
As Reuters reports, the North is a member of the UN, even though the UN Security Council has levied sanctions against the country for its nuclear program. The North has rejected the sanctions, saying it needs nuclear weapons for self-defense and space exploration.
After what had seemingly become a weekly occurrence, the North’s missile tests have inexplicably ceased – though US official have repeatedly warned that what would be the North's tenth test this year is right around the corner.
Under President Donald Trump, the US has ratcheted up pressure on the North, pushing China to sanction domestic companies that provide essential materials for the North’s nuclear program. And there’s the suspicion that the US may have had a hand in the failure of a missile launch in April, which occurred the day after Kim Jong Un oversaw an elaborate military parade in the center of the North’s capital, Pyongyang. The US also has positioned a navy strike fleet in the waters off the Korean Peninsula, ready to counter any acts of aggression from Kim.
If the report is accurate, perhaps the thaw in relations between the North and the US is now over before it really began. Now the real question: will we see Kim Jong Un retaliate, perhaps in the form of a missile test?