Three American citizens being held prisoners in North Korea have called on the United States to send a high-ranking representative to secure their release.
The three – Kenneth Bae, Matthew Miller and Jeffrey Fowle – made the remarks in rare interviews set up by the North Korean government with U.S. journalists who are visiting the isolated country.
As North Korean officials looked on, the three called for a high-profile U.S. representative to visit North Korea and make a direct appeal for their release.
Bae, who is serving a 15-year sentence, said his health is failing and Miller described his own situation as "very urgent." Miller and Fowle are awaiting trials.
The U.S. journalists from CNN and the Associated Press, who were on an official visit to North Korea, say they were summoned to conduct the unplanned interviews in Pyongyang. They were given five minutes with each man, they said.
State Department calls for release
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said there was no greater priority that the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad. She said the department was aware of Monday's developments and called on North Korea to release the Americans. She asked Pyongyong to pardon Bae and grant him amnesty so he could return to his home in Lynwood, Washington, and receive medical care.
Psaki said Swedish Embassy representatives in Pyongyang had visited all three U.S. citizens and the embassy has been in touch with the U.S. government.
Watch related video report from VOA's Carolyn Presutti:
North Korea sentenced Bae to 15 years of hard labor in April 2013 for "hostile acts" against the Pyongyang regime. The Korean-American Christian missionary was arrested in November 2012 while leading a group of tourists in the northern city of Rason.
Bae, 46, said he works eight hours a day, six days a week at a labor camp and is being treated "as humanely as possible." He said he spends time going between the labor camp and a hospital.
Bae's sister, Terri Chung, appealed to North Korean officials to show mercy and release her brother. She said the video interview clearly showed her brother is in a lot of physical pain and under great stress.
"It's really hard to watch," Chung said, noting her brother said he was "in complete isolation for the past year and a half. … He doesn't look like himself. He looks like he's under a tremendous amount of stress and he talks about his health failing, so all of that is really hard.''
Bae’s family visited Washington earlier this year to work for his release. His mother Myung-hee Bae watched her son’s latest interview and came away with the same plea.
“I really wanted it to happen right now because his body no longer takes long imprisonment in labor camp clearly his body taken big toll. His body look like it shrink a lot for me and his back aches and he got a sleep disorder, so I really ask our government to act now,” said Myung-hee.
Miller, 24, allegedly tore up his visa on his arrival in Pyongyang April 10 and demanded asylum. During his interview, Miller said he has not yet been tried and will not learn what the charges against him are until his hearing.
Fowle, 56, entered North Korea April 29 and is accused of perpetrating activities that violate North Korean law. Diplomatic sources have said he left a Bible in his hotel room. The municipal worker from the Midwestern state of Ohio said he has no complaints about his treatment.
The last time the United States negotiated a North Korean prisoner release was in 2009, when former president Bill Clinton returned with journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee. David Straub, the former director of the State Department’s Korea desk, assisted Clinton with the negotiations. He said this time, the North Koreans are misjudging their leverage.
“If I were still in the U.S. government, I would be reluctant to be a party to sending extremely senior Americans to pick up Americans who have been incarcerated. At what point can you continue to do that? At what point does this become a benefit to the North Koreans, allowing them at any point to blackmail the United States?” said Straub.
Straub said last month a secret U.S. mission to North Korea was unsuccessful in getting the three men freed. He thinks the Koreans want to put more pressure on the U.S. government to send a higher level government official.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.