Two high-profile persecution cases involving American Christians have taken a turn for the worse. But in North Korea, the bad news is at least tempered by potential U.S. State Department action.
North Korean officials transported Kenneth Bae, 45,to the hospital earlier this week after he lost 50 pounds and complained of severe medical problems. The government arrested Bae in November as he guided a tour in the country’s “special economic zone” near the Chinese border. The nation’s highest court sentenced him to 15 years hard labor for “plotting to overthrow” the government.
Bae suffers from liver ailments, diabetes, and back problems, which makes working in the fields even harder. In letters to his family, he has asked them to take a more vocal role in securing his release. “He’s considerably weaker,” his sister Terri Chung said. “There’s more urgency than ever to bring him home.”
North Korea has held Bae longer than any recent American prisoner, and the State Department had done little about it before Tuesday. “We are willing to consider a number of different options to secure his release,” spokeswoman Marie Harf announced at a Washington, D.C., news conference. “But the onus is on the North Korean government to do so.”
Many Korean experts are surprised the Obama administration has remained largely silent this long. Still, this spring saw the most heightened tensions between North and South Korea in years, and this would be the first prisoner negotiations with new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The country may fear an increase in what it called “subversive” action by Christians, and the Obama administration may want to see movement from the rogue state on its nuclear ambitions before entering negotiations. The game has changed, and Bae is caught in the middle.
At least Bae appears to be receiving medical treatment. Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini, 33, is reportedly struggling to maintain consciousness due to extreme pain from internal injuries he suffered in Iran’s most notorious prison. The American Center for Law and Justice, which represents Abedini’s wife in the United States, called the development a “disturbing turn of events.” Abedini, who was visiting family when he was arrested, has been held for 322 days. (Read more of WORLD’s coverage of Abedini’s plight.)
For months, Abedini has suffered internal bleeding due to beatings from his guards. Two prior trips to a Tehran hospital ended with him leaving without an examination. His condition worsened on July 20 to the point that a doctor prescribed him some form of medicine. The severe pain has recently returned, though, to the point he reportedly fainted from the stress.
Secretary of State John Kerry called for Abedini's release in March, but the State Department has done little else. The Islamic state has since elected a new president but remains one of the most dangerous places for Christians. Authorities recently arrested at least three other Christians without charge. One ended up in a hospital after vicious beatings.
Authorities did allow Abedini’s Iranian family to visit him in prison Monday, despite threats they would not be allowed in. Prayer vigils around the world are scheduled for Sept. 26, the one-year anniversary of Abedini's imprisonment.