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US Citizen Jailed in North Korea Makes Fresh Plea for Help

  • VOA News

Korean-American Kenneth Bae appears in this undated and uncredited photo shared on Facebook.

Korean-American Kenneth Bae appears in this undated and uncredited photo shared on Facebook.

A Korean-American imprisoned in North Korea has made a fresh appeal to the United States, saying Washington should send a high-ranking official to Pyongyang to request his release.

Kenneth Bae made the plea in an interview conducted last week and published Tuesday by the Chosun Sinbo, a Japan-based newspaper known for its pro-North Korean stance.

In the interview, Bae said he has been transferred to a hospital from a prison camp, where he had only just begun serving 15 years of hard labor after being convicted of state subversion.

The 45-year-old said his health has deteriorated, specifically mentioning that he was under-nourished and had back problems. The paper said he has lost 23 kilograms. His family said he also suffers from kidney stones, vision, heart and liver problems.

The U.S. State Department on Monday again appealed for the immediate release of Bae, who was convicted in April of trying to topple the Pyongyang government.

Korea analyst Leonid Petrov said that in the current political climate, North Korea is unlikely to simply release Bae on humanitarian grounds, as the U.S. has requested. "It theoretically is possible, but practically I doubt it is going to happen without any clear prospects of improvements in relations with the United States," he said.

North Korea has in the past tried to use the plight of jailed Americans to convince the U.S. to make diplomatic concessions. Despite the North's insistence it will not use Bae as a bargaining chip, some regional analysts think he is being used to coax the U.S. into dialogue.

But Bae's case comes at a tricky time diplomatically, with Washington tightening sanctions against North Korea in response to its latest nuclear and missile tests. Petrov, who is with the Australian National University, said the U.S. is unlikely to move away from this posture.

"The U.S. government is not interested in improving relations with the rogue state, with the self-proclaimed nuclear power, the one who threatens peace and stability in the region, looking at it from the Washington perspective," said Petrov.

Last month, there were rumors that ex-U.S. President Jimmy Carter may travel to North Korea to secure Bae's release, as he did with a jailed Christian activist in 2010. A Carter spokesman later said there were no plans to make such a trip.

Stephen Noerper with the Korea Society said in an interview with VOA that Carter might, in fact, be able to win Bae's release. But he says such a trip is unlikely, in part because it would obviously serve the interests of North Korean leadership. "That's what the North Koreans are looking for in terms of a legitimizer for their new leader Kim Jong Un. And the Americans, I think, are very reticent to provide that," he said.

In the past, North Korean state media have portrayed visits by high-ranking U.S. officials and former presidents as trips to pay respects to the country's authoritarian leaders.

Bae was visited by last week by a diplomat from Sweden, which represents U.S. interests in North Korea. The Swedish Foreign Ministry said Bae was well, "under the circumstances," and promised to keep checking regularly on his health.

In a previous version of this story, Stephen Noerper was identified as affiliated with the Asia Society. VOA regrets the error.

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