The U.S. government has agreed to send a senior envoy to North Korea to appeal for American Christian Kenneth Bae’s freedom. Imprisoned in November by the North Korean government and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, Bae’s health has been deteriorating and he is now hospitalized. His family and friends started a serious push earlier this month to free him.
A State Department official announced yesterday it would send Bob King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, to the communist country to negotiate later this week. The North Korean government invited King to make the trip.
Two weeks ago, Lim Eul Chul, a professor at South Korea’s Kyungnam University, said the United States does not usually take this long to respond situations like this. “The U.S. is apparently sending a message to North Korea that it won’t allow even informal contact with Pyongyang unless the North accepts Washington’s demand that the country must first show sincerity about nuclear disarmament.”
He suggested the U.S. government did not want to give a “domestic propaganda boost” to the country’s leadership by making another trip to North Korea.
North Korea has imprisoned six Americans since 2009. The other five have been set free, some as a result of visits from high-profile Americans, including former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Andrei Lankov, a professor and North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, said Bae “has become a pawn in the larger political game,” as have other Americans detained in North Korea.
Bae is a native of South Korea, although he now hold U.S. citizenship. He was working as a tour guide and missionary in North Korea. He was convicted of plotting to overthrow the government.
This will be the first time Kim Jong Un, the country’s young leader, has negotiatied the release of an American prisoner.
According to Washington-based diplomats, U.S. officials have been reaching out to North Korea for about a month to discuss Bae’s release. They said North Korea did not respond until now.
Two Americans, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, traveled to North Korea earlier this year to push for Bae’s release, but also had no success.
King traveled to North Korea to advocate for another prisoner in 2011. He succeeded in negotiating the release of Eddie Jun, a Korean-American from California. North Korean authorities imprisoned Jun for alleged missionary work while he was on a business trip.
King will fly into Pyongyang on a U.S. military plane from Japan, and will stay for only one day. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said King will request a pardon and amnesty for Bae on humanitarian grounds, due to Bae’s deteriorating health.
In a prepared statement, the White House said, “We remain deeply concerned about the health and welfare of Kenneth Bae, the American citizen currently detained in North Korea. We urge the government of North Korea to grant special clemency to Mr. Bae immediately and allow him to return home with Ambassador King.”