N. Korean Missile Test Won’t Impact Negotiations for US Detained Student, Experts Say

PHOTO: A file picture released by North Koreas state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at a ceremony in the meeting hall of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea in Pyongyang, North Korea, Jan. 12, 2016. PlayRodong via EPA
WATCH North Korea Fires Ballistic Missiles Into Sea of Japan

The surprise missile test launched by North Korea today will likely not help relations between the rogue nation and the United States, but it may not directly impact the negotiations for the release of an American college student who has been detained there, according to former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

Richardson, who previously served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and has worked extensively with North Korea in other negotiations, said that the two issues will likely be viewed separately. A State Department official told ABC News that "we view them as two separate issues, two separate tracks."

Richardson told ABC News that he thinks the missile launch was "in response to the U.S.-South Korean military exercises and the sanctions imposed by the UN."

"It’s an act of defiance. Their rhetoric is matched by these acts of defiance, but they’ve never been as intense as they have been now," he said.

Richardson isn't alone in this belief. Victor Cha, a former director at the National Security Council, said that the missile tests and any negotiations relating to Warmbier will be kept apart.

"I see them as separate because the missile tests are part of a growing action-reaction spiral right now that started with the January nuclear tests followed by United Nations sanctions, now United States sanctions and U.S. military exercising. So the North Koreans are reacting to that with these missile tests," Cha told ABC News.

"This is not a good dynamic. It's going to continue for a while, I think, and so that's what last night's [test] was about," he added.

PHOTO: Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson arrives at Pyongyang international airport in Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, on Dec. 20, 2010. Xinhua, Gao Haorong via Associated Press Photo
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson arrives at Pyongyang international airport in Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, on Dec. 20, 2010.

Richardson has been in contact with representatives of the North Korean government in New York about the release of Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old American who was detained and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster while he was in North Korea with a tour group earlier this year.

Warmbier’s family, from Ohio, and the state’s governor, John Kasich, reached out to Richardson to help secure the college student’s release.

The stormy relationship between U.S. and North Korea has not been an impediment in other cases where Americans have been detained, Richardson explained.

"Usually we have had releases of Americans while the relationship is tense. The only problem is there are two wildcards: the relationship today [has] never been so intense, and secondly, the unpredictability of Kim Jong Un, who seems to be taking these measures on the world’s stage…to show internally that he is completely in charge," Richardson said.

With Warmbier’s case, Richardson noted that “it’s hard to make a prediction" but said that the student will likely “be out in a matter of months."

"It will be a political decision by the North Korean leadership, and it will probably happen in exchange of some gesture or humanitarian assistance," he noted.

PHOTO: A photo provided by the official Korean Central News Agency shows US student Otto Frederick Warmbier at his trial held by The Supreme Court of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, in Pyongyang, North Korea, on March16, 2016. Korean Central News Agency via EPA
A photo provided by the official Korean Central News Agency shows US student Otto Frederick Warmbier at his trial held by The Supreme Court of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, in Pyongyang, North Korea, on March16, 2016.

Cha said that the detention of American tourists is "unfortunately becoming fairly regular practice."

There is no way of knowing exactly how long Warmbier will have to serve, Cha said.

"The last American that was actually forced to serve a sentence was Kenneth Bae and they showed photos of him in a prison uniform doing hard labor, so it's not like it hasn't been done before," Cha said. "Kenneth Bae was eventually released but it was well over a year that he was held."

In past cases, Richardson said humanitarian assistance has come in the form of energy assistance or, more commonly, food or grain.

"Mostly food, because the people there are starving," Richardson said.

The differences between Kim Jong Un and his father, Kim Jong Il, may be more pronounced and force the shape of the ongoing negotiations for Warmbier’s release.

"The father was predictable. Generally, he was engaged -- he had meetings with the outside world, he traveled somewhat within Asia, his rhetoric would often be accompanied by nuclear tests, but he did negotiate with the U.S.," Richardson said, citing a nuclear agreement in 1994.

"This new leader is harsh -- rhetoric, no negotiations, dramatically more missile and nuclear tests, little engagement with South Korea on humanitarian issues, internal turmoil more pronounced than his father," he added.