Updated - 08/30/13, 11:02 a.m. ET: North Korea has withdrawn its invitation to Amb. Robert King to travel to Pyongyang. King was scheduled to arrive in North Korea Friday to seek the release of American prisoner Kenneth Bae. In a statement to the AP, State Dept. spokesperson Marie Harf called the announcement surprising, and said the U.S. was “disappointed by North Korea’s decision.” It is unclear whether or not the trip will be rescheduled.
Original story - 08/29/13, 2:52 p.m. ET:
After nearly 10 months in a North Korean prison camp, Kenneth Bae could be set free. Bae, an American Christian missionary, was detained last November after officials accused him of “hostile acts” against North Korea, and for encouraging citizens to overthrow the government. He was sentenced in April to 15 years of hard labor.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Amb. Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, will fly to Pyongyang on Friday to make an appeal for Bae’s release. This is the first public trip to North Korea by a U.S. official in more than two years.
The State Department said Tuesday in a brief statement that it was “deeply concerned” about Bae, who suffers from diabetes and other health problems. Bae was taken to a hospital last month after he lost more than 50 pounds. “He’s considerably weaker,” Bae’s sister Terri Chung told NBC station King 5. “There’s more urgency than ever to bring him home.”
Echoing his family’s concerns, the White House released a statement Tuesday urging North Korea to release the 45-year-old Washington native. “We remain deeply concerned about the health and welfare of Kenneth Bae…We urge the government of North Korea to grant special clemency to Mr. Bae immediately and allow him to return home with Ambassador King.”
The U.S. State Department has been monitoring Bae’s detention closely since his sentencing in April, and have been calling for his release. On Wednesday, State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters she was hopeful, but made clear that Bae’s release was a separate issue from renewing a dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea. “We have repeatedly said that separate and apart from any of the other issues we talk about with North Korea that Kenneth Bae needs to be released immediately,” Harf said.
She added that the U.S. will continue to hold North Korea to its commitment of denuclearization—a deal signed in 2005 by the U.S., North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia as part of the now-frozen six-party talks—but had no plans to view Bae’s release as an olive branch.
“The onus is on North Korea here,” Harf said.
Bae is the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009. High-profile visits from the U.S. to negotiate the release of prisoners have included former Presidents Bill Clinton in 2009 and Jimmy Carter in 2010. While North Korean officials have not committed to releasing Bae, the chances are favorable: Amb. King’s last visit to North Korea in 2011 ended with him bringing home American Eddie Jun, who had been detained for unauthorized missionary work.