An American Christian missionary imprisoned in North Korea is in deteriorating health and has been moved from a prison work camp to a hospital within the past two weeks, his sister said at a vigil for her brother on Saturday.
Kenneth Bae was sentenced in May to 15 years of hard labour after North Korea’s Supreme Court convicted him of state subversion. The court said Bae, 45, had used his tourism business to form groups to overthrow the government.
Bae was detained in November as he led a tour group through the northern region of the country. His sentencing came amid acrimonious relations between Pyongyang and Washington over the reclusive state’s nuclear program.
Bae’s sister Terri Chung said that her brother had until recently been held at a prison for foreigners and put to work ploughing and planting fields.
However, he is suffering from a range of health problems including an enlarged heart and chronic diabetes as well as back and leg pain, necessitating his transfer to a state hospital, she said.
Chung said she learned of her brother’s transfer from the Swedish ambassador to North Korea, who visited Bae on Friday. The ambassador, who has met with Bae a handful of times since his detention, has been his only foreign visitor, Chung said.
Chung’s comments came at a prayer vigil for Bae at a Seattle Church on Saturday evening attended by more than 100 friends, family and supporters. Chung also read from a letter sent by Bae to his supporters written on June 13, in which he encouraged them to push his case with American officials.
“The only way I can be free to return home is by obtaining amnesty,” Bae wrote. “In order for that to happen it will take more active efforts from the US government side.”
Two American journalists arrested in 2009 by North Korea and held until former president Bill Clinton travelled there to negotiate their release were organising a satellite vigil in New York, one of the journalists, Euna Lee said.
North Korea has in the past used the release of high-profile American prisoners as a means of garnering a form of prestige or acceptance by portraying visiting dignitaries as paying homage to the country and its leader.
That pattern has complicated the response of US lawmakers and the State Department, which has called for Bae’s immediate release on “humanitarian grounds”, but resisted sending high-profile envoys to negotiate, as it has done in the past.
An internet petition started by Bae’s son urging US President Barack Obama to secure a “Special Amnesty” for Bae has garnered nearly 8,000 signatures.
There have been other calls for his release, such as a Twitter message from former basketball player Dennis Rodman, who visited North Korea in February, but Chung said US officials have assured her they are pursuing quieter clemency efforts.
Reports last month that former US President Jimmy Carter was set to visit North Korea to negotiate for Bae were ultimately denied as false.
Bae, a naturalised US citizen born in South Korea who moved to the United States with his family in 1985, has spent much of the last seven years in China, where he started a business leading tour groups into the northern region of North Korea, Chung said.