WASHINGTON/SEATTLE – The United States said Monday it was ready to send an envoy to North Korea to bring back a jailed American who pleaded in front of reporters to go home.
Kenneth Bae, a tour operator arrested in November 2012, made a public confession of wrongdoing — often seen as a prerequisite for the totalitarian state to release foreign prisoners.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States remained “very concerned” about Bae’s health and was “actively” working to release him.
“We continue to urge the DPRK authorities to grant Bae amnesty and immediate release,” Psaki said, referring to the North by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Another U.S. official who requested anonymity voiced hope that North Korean authorities’ decision for Bae to address reporters “signals their willingness to release him.”
The official said that Robert King, the U.S. envoy on human rights in North Korea who has visited in the past, was prepared to bring home Bae.
“We have offered to send Ambassador King to Pyongyang to secure Mr. Bae’s release. We have asked the North Koreans this, and await their early response,” the official said.
Bae, a Korean American also known as Pae Jun-ho, was arrested as he entered North Korea’s northeastern port city of Rason. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor last year on charges of seeking to topple the government.
Bae spoke to a small group of reporters at what was described as a news conference. Kyodo News said that the 45-year-old was dressed in a gray inmate’s uniform and flanked by two security guards for the event, which lasted three and a half minutes.
Bae admitted to wrongdoing and called on the U.S. government to help secure his release so that he could return to his family “at the earliest possible date,” according to Kyodo.
A court in North Korea, which strictly controls religion, had described Bae as a militant Christian evangelist who had smuggled subversive material into the country and sought to establish a base in Rason.
Bae’s family said it was both heartbroken and encouraged by the news.
“Our end goal is to see Kenneth reunited so he can recover emotionally and physically. He has chronic health problems,” family friend Derek Sciba said. Sciba is a friend of Bae’s sister, Terri Chung of Edmonds, Washington, and part of a group pushing for Bae’s release.
“On the one hand it’s heartbreaking to see him in a prison uniform at the mercy of folks in North Korea, but on the other hand it’s encouraging to see him and that he’s able to speak,” Sciba said.
Bae, who spoke in Korean during the brief appearance, is the longest-serving American detainee in North Korea in recent years.
“I believe that my problem can be solved by close cooperation and agreement between the American government and the government of this country,” he said.
Bae was arrested in November 2012 while leading a tour group and accused of crimes against the state before being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. He was moved to a hospital last summer in poor health.
He made an apology Monday and said he had committed anti-government acts.
Bae said a comment last month by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden had made his situation more difficult.
“The vice president of United States said that I was detained here without any reason,” Bae said. “And even my younger sister recently told the press that I had not committed any crime and I know that the media reported it.
“I think these comments infuriated the people here enormously. And for this reason, I am in a difficult situation now. As a result, although I was in medical treatment in the hospital for five months until now, it seems I should return to prison. And moreover there is greater difficulty in discussions about my amnesty.”
A senior U.S. envoy had planned to visit North Korea in late August to discuss Bae’s release, but Pyongyang withdrew its invitation at the last minute, accusing the United States of hostility. Analysts said North Korea was apparently trying to gain leverage in a long-running international standoff over its nuclear weapons program.
“We shouldn’t take Kenneth Bae’s comments merely as his own,” said Kim Jin Moo, a North Korea expert at the South Korean state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. “The reason why North Korea had Kenneth Bae make this statement . . . is that they want Washington to reach out to them.”
Other foreign analysts say North Korea wants better ties with Seoul and Washington as a way to win foreign aid and investment to boost its economy.