A special US government envoy will travel to North Korea on Friday to seek the release of Kenneth Bae, the American Christian missionary and former tour operator sentenced to 15 years hard labour by the secretive state.
Detained last November while leading a tour in the country, he was found guilty of “hostile acts” and sentenced in April, with a Supreme Court spokesman later claiming to the state news agency that he had “set up plot-breeding bases in different places of China for the purpose of toppling the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] government from 2006 to October 2012 out of distrust and enmity toward the DPRK”. The US has repeatedly called for Mr Bae’s release on humanitarian grounds, citing the 45-year-old’s health problems, including diabetes.
Now, the Obama administration’s special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, will travel to the country to renew the US request for Mr Bae’s release.
Speaking to reporters during a stopover in Tokyo, Mr King said that while it wasn’t certain that Mr Bae would be freed, he was “going to make to an appeal”. He added: “He has health problems and we’re hopeful we will be able to make progress on that.”
The trip will be the first public visit to the country headed by Kim Jong-un, the son of the late Kim Jong-il, by a US government official in over two years. In the recent past, North Korea has usually released Americans in its custody without forcing them to serve their full prison terms. Among those who have travelled to the country to secure the release of incarcerated Americans are the former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
Mr King himself secured the release of Eddie Jun, a Korean-American from California detained on unspecified charges, during his last visit to the country in 2011 to survey the food situation.
Earlier this month, Mr Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, said he had been shifted from a labour camp to a hospital on account of his ill health. “The last three months in the labour camp have certainly been very trying on both his mental and physical health,” she told CNN. “He’s also under a tremendous amount of stress.”
Back in July, Mr Bae sought the assistance of the US in securing his release in an interview with a Japanese newspaper. “Although my health is not good, I am being patient and coping well,” he said. “And I hope that with the help of the North Korean government and the United States, I will be released soon.”