The family of Kenneth Bae, an American imprisoned in North Korea, celebrated his 46th birthday Friday without him.
“Happy birthday, Jun-ho!” said his mother Myung-hee Bae when asked to send a message to Bae during a phone interview with the VOA Korean service. The Baes are of Korean ethnicity and Jun-ho is Kenneth Bae’s Korean name.
“My heart is hurting because I can’t spend today with you, but I love you and hope you are enduring well,” his mother added.
Bae was convicted by North Korea last year on charges of planning to overthrow the government. He was working as an Evangelical Christian Missionary when he was arrested by Pyongyang in November 2012. He was later sentenced to 15 years in prison.
His mother adorned the birthday dinner table with some of Bae’s favorite dishes.
“He really likes meat,” said Myung-hee with a sigh while speaking from the Bae residence in the western state of Washington.
Around 7 p.m. Bae’s supporters joined the family in a prayer session wishing for his swift and safe return.
Journalist Euna Lee, who was also detained in the North for almost five months back in 2009, joined the prayer efforts.
She and fellow journalist Laura Ling were detained in North Korea after they briefly crossed into the reclusive state from China without visas while working for Current TV.
They were freed in August of 2009 during a special humanitarian visit by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
“[Kenneth Bae] is already spending his second birthday in North Korea," Lee said during a phone conversation with VOA. "I hope his next birthday will be celebrated here with his family.”
Lee said she can only imagine the amount of suffering Bae is going through. The missionary detention in the communist country is now four times as long as her own was.
“The time I spent imprisoned in the North felt like 10 years," she said. "I know it must be hard for him but hope he remembers there is always light at the end of a tunnel, no matter how long and dark it is.”
Myung-hee Bae has done everything she could have done for her son’s release, including urging Secretary of State John Kerry to make proactive efforts toward his release.
The 70-year-old even flew to North Korea last October and reunited with her emaciated son and urged Pyongyang to show generosity in letting him go. Washington has also called on Pyongyang to free Bae as a humanitarian gesture.
Bae suffers from heart and back problems and is one of three Americans being held in North Korea.
Jee Abbey Lee contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with the VOA Korean service.