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Pyongyang Releases 2 U.S. Citizens Who Were Held For Months

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The U.S. insists it did not promise North Korea anything in return for two imprisoned Americans who were flown home over the weekend. And the U.S. says it is not changing its policy towards the country. Still, the release does remove a major obstacle to diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: President Obama took the unusual step of writing a letter directly to North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. In it, he explained that he was sending Director of National Intelligence James Clapper as his personal envoy to get the Americans out of North Korea. Clapper did not meet with Kim. These details come from a U.S. official who anonymously briefed reporters traveling with the president to Asia. Washington emphasizes that this was strictly a humanitarian mission, not a diplomatic one. Zhang Liangui is a North Korea expert at China's Central Party School in Beijing. He says goodwill gestures will not help Pyongyang much unless it addresses the nuclear issue.

ZHANG LIANGUI: (Foreign language spoken).

KUHN: If North Korea refuses to discuss nuclear disarmament, the stalemate on the Korean Peninsula will be hard to break, he says. The international community will have to keep on applying pressure to North Korea. Chinese President Xi Jinping told South Korean President Park Geun-hye today that all sides should show some flexibility and restart the six-country talks, which Pyongyang walked out of six years ago. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.