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Family of American held in North Korea asks US to step up efforts to free him

Analysts say that North Korea may be holding out for a high-profile visitor from the US before allowing Kenneth Bae’s release.

By Staff writer / August 12, 2013

Terri Chung holds a notice of a prayer vigil for her brother, Kenneth Bae, Aug. 7, in Lynnwood, Wash. Bae, an American tour operator and Christian missionary, has been detained in North Korea since being arrested in November 2012, and Chung and her family are renewing calls for his release as concerns about his health increase.

Ted S. Warren/AP

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The family of Kenneth Bae, the American who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea in May, is appealing to the United States to step up efforts to bring him home.

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Jenna Fisher is the Monitor's former Asia editor, overseeing regional coverage for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine from 2010 through 2013.

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Mr. Bae’s mother, sister, and brother received letters and a video from him and were informed that he had been transferred from a labor camp to a hospital and that his health was deteriorating after nine months of incarceration. 

"I don't see any action. I want to ask them, send an envoy or do something. As a mother, I am really getting angry, really getting angry. What do they do?" Bae's mother, Myung-Hee, told CBS News.

North Korea has previously used detained Americans as bargaining chips with the United States, which wants Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. Analysts say that North Korea may be holding out for a high-profile visitor from the US to discuss six-party talks before allowing Bae’s release. Such a visit, analysts also say, could help bolster leader Kim Jong-un’s image at home.

Although there have been some signs of warming, tensions are still high on the Korean Peninsula after a spring that saw Pyongyang unleash a torrent of bombastic threats in response to tightened UN sanctions over a nuclear test by the North in February.

The US has called for the release of Bae, on humanitarian grounds, but to no apparent effect. Analysts say North Korea may want to use Bae to get a top-level visit from the US. At least five other Americans have been detained in North Korea since 2009. Each was permitted to leave without serving out his or her prison time after visits by prominent Americans. Former President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang in 2009 just before the release of two US journalists. And former President Jimmy Carter made a trip in 2010 ahead of the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes

Former US pro basketball star Dennis Rodman visited North Korea in February and made a call to Mr. Kim over Twitter to release Bae, and has offered to visit Pyongyang again, but US officials have said they are pursuing quieter clemency efforts.

Last month reports emerged that Mr. Carter was set to visit North Korea to negotiate for Bae, but those were denied as false recently, reports Reuters.

An ambassador from Sweden met with Bae at the hospital last week, according to Bae’s sister. Sweden represents US interests in North Korea. 

In May, The Christian Science Monitor reported that North Korea released details of the crimes for which Bae was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor last week, painting the American as a subversive who was plotting to overthrow the government. 

Bae, a Korean-American from Washington state, had been leading a group of businessmen from China on a tour of the special economic zone of Rason in northeastern North Korea when he was arrested in November. Bae is a naturalized US citizen who was born in South Korea and moved to the US with his family in 1985. He has spent much of the past seven years in China, where he started a business leading tour groups into North Korea. He was also a Christian missionary.

Bae’s son, Jonathan, has called for his father’s release on Change.org. His petition has received more than 10,000 signatures.

“Although my health is not good, I am being patient and coping well,” Bae said in a videotaped interview from prison broadcast on CNN last month. “And I hope that with the help of the North Korean government and the United States, I will be released soon.”

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