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US Prepared to Send Envoy to N. Korea for Bae Release

The United States is waiting for North Korea to respond to an offer to send a special envoy to Pyongyang to help win the release of jailed American Kenneth Bae.

Speaking anonymously, a White House official said the U.S. offered to send Ambassador Robert King to help free Bae, who has been sentenced to 15 years hard labor.

The offer comes after Bae, appearing before reporters in Pyongyang, asked for Washington to help bring him home and confessed to a "serious crime" in the North.

Bae, a missionary and businessman convicted of state subversion, is widely considered to have been speaking under duress at the Monday press conference.

His longtime friend Bobby Lee tells VOA he viewed the comments as "orchestrated," but says the U.S. offer to send an envoy is a "promising start."

"We'll have to wait and see how this develops. It's hard to know how this will unfold. But at least there's a dialogue. So at least that makes this somewhat promising."

Most analysts say North Korea is trying to use Bae as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from Washington.

But it is unclear what exactly the North wants.

Korea analyst Nick Bisley of Australia's Latrobe University tells VOA that Pyongyang may be using Bae as a desperate bid for political legitimacy.

"North Korea wants some engagement from Washington, but it wants it on its own terms. And this is a way of getting the Americans to be seen, within the internal context, of singing the tune of Pyongyang."

High-ranking former U.S. officials have in the past flown to Pyongyang and successfully convinced North Korea to release detained Americans.

North Korean state propaganda has portrayed the visits domestically as trips meant to pay respects to the country's authoritarian leaders.

But it is unclear whether North Korea would even welcome a visit by Ambassador King.

When King tried to visit in August, North Korea called the trip off at the last minute, citing joint U.S.-South Korean military drills. A fresh round of drills is set to get underway next month.

Bae is the sixth American to be held in North Korea since 2009. All the others were released within a year, while Bae has now served 15 months.

A family statement Monday "humbly" asked North Korean officials for mercy to release Bae, who it said has "acknowledged his crimes" and apologized.

In his press conference Monday, the 45-year-old Bae, dressed in a blue prison suit and hat, asked his family to "stop worsening my situation by making vile rumors against North Korea."

Speaking under heavy guard, Bae also told reporters he hopes the U.S. can step up its efforts to bring him home.

"Up until now, I know that Americans here returned [to the U.S.] after a certain period thanks to the generous measures taken by the government of this country and the efforts of the American government. I would like to request the American government once more, I know for the past 15 months you have made a lot of effort, but now I want to ask you to give me direct assistance not in words, but with action, and solve my problem."

Bae was detained in November, 2012, while leading a tour group. North Korea said he used his tourism business to form groups aimed at overthrowing the government.

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