President Obama pledged to bring home Kenneth Bae, an American prisoner who has been detained for over a year in North Korea.
The president publicly acknowledged Bae’s detention for the first time at Thursday morning’s National Prayer Breakfast. Obama prayed for global freedom from religious persecution, and “for Kenneth Bae, a Christian missionary who’s been held in North Korea for 15 months, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. His family wants him home. And the United States will continue to do everything in our power to secure his release because Kenneth Bae deserves to be free.”
Obama also talked about Iran’s imprisonment of Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American Christian pastor who’s been held in Iran since the summer of 2012.
Bae was arrested in November 2012 while leading a tour group in North Korea. He was accused of “hostile acts” against the North Korean government, and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor–the first American arrested in the country to be sent to a labor camp.
The U.S. attempted last year to send a special envoy to Pyongyang to negotiate Bae’s release, but the invitation was withdrawn after North Korean officials accused the U.S. of “nuclear blackmail” by conducting joint military exercises with South Korea.
State Department officials have since been working to negotiate Bae’s release, and Secretary of State John Kerry met with Bae’s family last month. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney also acknowledged the government’s attempts early this year. “We remain greatly concerned about Kenneth Bae’s health and continue to urge DPRK authorities to grant him amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds,” Carney said.
Bae’s sister Terri Chung told msnbc last month she wanted more done to free her brother. “Kenneth has asked publicly for U.S. government intervention,” Chung said. “I appreciate all the work the State Department has been doing and will continue to do, and I believe in their advocacy, but I want urgent action taken to bring Kenneth home now.”
New York Congressman Charlie Rangel is also throwing his hat into the fight. In an open letter this week to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Rangel along with Reps. John Conyers, Sam Johnson, and Howard Coble–the four remaining Korean War veterans serving in Congress at the moment–urged North Korea to respond: “You have done the right thing by releasing a fellow Korean War veteran, Merrill E. Newman, to return home; you would be making further progress on the humanitarian front by freeing Kenneth Bae to reunite with his family. We believe that taking actions to build good will and trust with the international community are crucial steps toward reconciliation.”
The letter also responded to North Korea’s willingness to resume reunions with South Korean families, and urged the country’s leaders to continue that positive trend. “Nothing is more tragic than the separation of families and loved ones. We encourage you to also create a pathway to allow some 100,000 Korean-Americans to meet with their divided families in the DPRK before too many pass away.”
The two Koreas agreed this week to allow families separated after the Korean War to reunite briefly along the border. This is the first time in nearly four years that officials will allow the brief reunions to take place, and the second time ever since the end of the war (the first time was in 2010). The reunions are scheduled to take place later this month.