TOKYO – An American imprisoned in North Korea has told a pro-Pyongyang media outlet that he wants the U.S. to "try harder" to help him gain amnesty from a sentence of 15 years of hard labor for alleged crimes against the government.
In what appears to be his first media interview since his November arrest, Kenneth Bae told the Tokyo-based Choson Sinbo in a story published Wednesday that he had hoped to be out by Thursday. That's not only Independence Day but his father's 70th birthday. He said he still hopes the U.S. government will help him get released quickly.
He was sent in May to what the North calls a "special prison," and Pyongyang's decision to allow the interview may have been an attempt to show that he is not being treated harshly. But an analyst said Pyongyang is also trying to use Bae as a bargaining chip to start bilateral talks with the U.S.
Bae, 44, of Lynnwood, Washington, was arrested in the northeastern North Korean region of Rason and was interviewed last week at a North Korean prison where he is serving out his sentence. An American of Korean descent, Bae entered the special economic zone as a tour operator but was convicted in late April of plotting to commit "hostile acts" against the North Korean government.
Photos and video of Bae published this week by Choson Sinbo show him with his head shaven and wearing gray overalls bearing the number 103.
Choson Sinbo, which caters to Japan's pro-Pyongyang North Korean community, provided an unusual look at Bae's life inside his "special education center" cell. It is 12 square meters and has a wash basin, a desk and a television.
Bae said he wakes up at 6 every morning. He then does farm work, planting seeds and weeding, until his labor ends at 6 p.m. He gets Sundays and holidays off, he told the paper during a June 26 interview.
"People here are very considerate, so I'm not working too hard, but my health is not in the best condition so there are some difficulties," Bae said in a Choson Sinbo video shared with CNN and posted to the paper's Facebook page. It's likely he gave the interview in the presence of North Korean officials.
Many in the U.S. see Bae's imprisonment as bait with which North Korea hopes to win diplomatic concessions from Washington. North Korea remains locked in a standoff with the U.S. and its allies for continuing to develop nuclear weapons despite U.N. sanctions. It launched a long-range rocket in December and conducted a nuclear test in February.
Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korean studies professor at Korea University in Seoul, said the photos and video of Bae "are purely for propaganda purposes."
Yoo said North Korea hopes to use Bae as an excuse to bring the U.S. government into dialogue. The U.S. has responded coolly to the North's recent calls for talks, saying that Pyongyang must work toward denuclearization if it wants to improve relations.
Pyongyang denies using Bae, who is known in North Korea by the Korean name Pae Jun Ho, for political purposes.
Choson Sinbo's Pyongyang bureau chief, Kim Ji Yong, said the paper "worked hard to get this interview. Why the officials decided to grant it, however, is for them to say."
Bae informed his family in April he would not be allowed to appeal his sentence and urged them to lobby Washington to push for amnesty, North Korean officials have told The Associated Press.
"July 4th is my father's 70th birthday. So I was hoping that my problem will be worked out by the end of June," Bae said. "So my hope is that North Korea will forgive and the U.S. will try harder to get me out quickly. I'm asking for their help."
Washington has called for Bae's release.
"There is no greater priority for us than the welfare and safety of our U.S. citizens abroad, as I've said many times," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in May. He urged North Korea to "grant Mr. Bae amnesty and immediate release."
However, there has been no indication that a high-profile American envoy is set to travel to North Korea to negotiate his release.
At least five other Americans have been detained in North Korea since 2009. The others were eventually allowed to leave without serving out their terms, some after clemency missions by prominent Americans, including former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has the power to grant special pardons under the North's constitution.
Former NBA star Dennis Rodman has called on Kim to release the fellow American. The basketball player met and dined with Kim during a visit to North Korea earlier this year.
The human rights group Amnesty International has criticized Bae's lack of access to a lawyer. Pyongyang says he confessed and didn't want an attorney at sentencing.
Bae has had limited contact with the outside world. He has been visited by diplomats from the Swedish Embassy, which represents U.S. interests there because Washington and Pyongyang lack official diplomatic ties.