WASHINGTON – The White House is urging North Korean officials to release an American missionary that has been sentenced to 15 years hard labor in the country, along with a Korean War veteran who has been held since October.
As previously reported, Kenneth Bae, who operates a tourist company in Washington state, was arrested not far from the city of Yanji last November, where some Christian groups provide aid to North Korean refugees. It is stated that Bae has made a number of trips to North Korea to assist orphaned children.
While the exact reason for his charges of committing “hostile [and religious] acts to bring down the government” has not been made known, some organizations speculate that Bae may be in trouble for taking pictures that the government found threatening.
“The most plausible scenario I can think of is that he took some pictures of the orphans, and the North Korean authorities considered that an act of anti-North Korean propaganda,” said Do Hee-youn of the Citizens’ Coalition for the Human Rights of North Korean Refugees.
Others opine that perhaps he took photographs of prisoners being executed or other similar human rights concerns. One report claims that Bae was found with a disc that had potentially sensitive information.
A video released by CNN in August showed Bae allegedly admitting to violating North Korean law, but some are skeptical about the admission.
“There were preliminaries for three months. I wrote a statement that I violated the law upon entry to Rajin city. During the preliminaries, I admitted to this fact so I didn’t feel the need to choose a lawyer to defend my case at the trial,” he stated in the video. “I know that what I did cannot be forgiven, but my wish is for this to be solved as soon as possible and meet my family.”
According to reports, Bae has been working eight-hour days in the fields, weeding and planting beans and potatoes. He has lost a significant amount of weight since he began serving his sentence, and was hospitalized earlier this year due to failing health.
As the U.S. has expressed concern about Bae’s condition, it has called upon North Korean officials on several occasions to free the businessman and missionary. An invitation had once been extended to American representatives to discuss the matter, but it was rescinded last minute.
On Saturday, the White House reiterated its call to release Bae.
“We remain deeply concerned about the welfare of the U.S. citizens held in custody in the DPRK,” Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, stated. “We continue to urge the DPRK authorities to grant [Bae] amnesty and immediate release.”
It also called for the release of 85-year-old Merrill Newman, a Korean War veteran who is believed to have been held captive in the nation since October. According to reports, Newman has been accused of crimes committed during the war, which his family states are false.
“Given Mr. Newman’s advanced age and health conditions, we urge the DPRK to release Mr. Newman so he may return home and reunite with his family,” Hayden said.
Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, released a statement following word from the White House.
“We are thankful that the White House has advocated for the release of both Mr. Newman and my brother, Kenneth Bae,” she stated.” It has been a devastating experience for my brother and my family, so we pray every day for his release. Now we’re including Mr. Newman in our prayers.”
“Kenneth has now been detained for more than a year, longest of any American since the Korean War,” she continued. “He is the only one to have served time in the labor camp until he had to be hospitalized. Kenneth has chronic conditions that require treatment by his doctors at home. It is time for him to come home to his family.”