Washington • A senior U.S. envoy will travel to North Korea this week to seek the release of an American sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in the authoritarian country, the State Department said Tuesday.
The visit by Bob King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, will be the first public trip to North Korea by an administration official in more than two years and could provide an opening for an improvement in relations severely strained by Pyongyang's pursuit of nuclear weapons.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said King will request a pardon and amnesty for Kenneth Bae, 45, on humanitarian grounds. Bae, a tour operator and Christian missionary, was arrested in November and accused of committing "hostile acts" against North Korea. He suffers multiple health problems and was recently hospitalized.
Washington has been calling for Pyongyang to grant amnesty since Bae was sentenced April 30.
King will fly to Pyongyang on Friday and fly out on Saturday. When King last visited North Korea in May 2011 to assess the impoverished North's food situation, he came home with Eddie Jun, the last American to be held then freed by Pyongyang. Jun, a Korean-American from California, was arrested for alleged unauthorized missionary work during several business trips to the country. He was released on humanitarian grounds.
Bae's sister revealed earlier this month that he was moved from a labor camp to a hospital after losing more than 50 pounds. Terri Chung, of Edmonds, near Seattle, says her brother, a father of three, suffers from diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain. He was born in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. with his parents and sister in 1985. For the past seven years Bae has been living in China, Chung says.
According to U.S. officials, Washington first made its offer to send King to North Korea several weeks ago, but Pyongyang only recently took them up on the offer. Pyongyang has yet to declare it will release Bae.