TOKYO – Kenneth Bae, the latest of several Americans jailed by North Korea in recent years, has already waited longer for his freedom than any of the others had to. But as his health deteriorates, Washington and Pyongyang appear unable to negotiate, each wary of giving concessions to the other.
Past detainees were freed following visits from prominent Americans — a former president in two cases. But this time Washington, or perhaps Pyongyang, is refusing to play that game of "send me a statesman."
Pyongyang has put a spotlight on Bae's case by allowing the American missionary and tour operator to be interviewed by North Korean-sanctioned media first in jail and then, last week, in the hospital where he is now being treated for several ailments. Both times, under the supervision of his North Korean guards, Bae has said he wants the U.S. to do more to gain his release. He wants a high-ranking U.S. official to travel to North Korea to seek a pardon for him.
Bae, 45, was arrested in November while leading a group of tourists in the Rason special economic zone near China in the country's northeast. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in May.
According the Choson Sinbo Online, the Tokyo-based media outlet that interviewed him, he has lost 23 kilograms (50 pounds) since his arrest and now weighs 71 kilograms (156 pounds). It said he was in poor physical shape even before his arrest, and that his liver ailments and back problems made it impossible for him to carry out hard labor.
His detention comes as Pyongyang and Washington jockey for leverage in a long-running standoff over Pyongyang's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Before Bae was arrested, at least five other Americans had been detained in North Korea since 2009. None was held for longer than seven months.
Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter both visited Pyongyang as private citizens to secure the release of Americans in recent years. Such a high-profile envoy would provide diplomatic credibility to North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, without directly involving the U.S. government. This is the first time he has been the North's leader during these kind of negotiations.
But even that approach has its risks.
When Carter visited in April 2011, he was spurned by then-leader Kim Jong Il, and irked U.S. officials by criticizing Washington for withholding food aid.
Instead of a former statesman serving as envoy, the administration could send a current U.S. official.
The last time an American detainee was freed by North Korea happened when Robert King, a U.S. envoy for North Korean human rights, traveled to the country in May 2011 to assess the food situation there. He went home with Eddie Jun, a Korean-American businessman from California who was arrested for alleged unauthorized missionary work.
The State Department announced Tuesday that King will travel to northeast Asia this month, but not to North Korea itself. It's unclear if Pyongyang would be receptive to such a visit.
King's visit begins Monday in China, where he'll meet officials from China's government, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Program before traveling to South Korea and Japan.
U.S. officials have reached out to North Korea in the past month or so, seeking to engage it on how to facilitate Bae's release, according to Washington-based diplomats familiar with the approach. North Korea, however, has not responded, said the diplomats, who discussed it on condition of anonymity because of its sensitivity.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf on Tuesday would not say whether the U.S. might send a high-level official, but she signaled U.S. willingness to engage North Korea to secure Bae's release.
"We are willing to consider a number of different options to secure his release, but the onus is on the North Korean government to do so," Harf said at a news conference in Washington.
Lim Eul Chul, a professor at South Korea's Kyungnam University, said North Korea likely wants to use Bae to win a high-profile U.S. envoy's visit and hold talks with Washington. But he said it's unusual for Washington to wait so long to try to resolve the matter.
"The U.S. is apparently sending a message to North Korea that it won't allow even informal contact with Pyongyang" unless the North accepts Washington's demand that the country must first show sincerity about nuclear disarmament, Lim said. He said Washington doesn't want to repeat previous patterns where trips by envoys gave a domestic propaganda boost to the country's leadership. But North Korea has also indicated that it has no intention of unilaterally giving up its nuclear program.
Andrei Lankov, a professor and North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, agreed that Bae has become a pawn in the larger political game, just as other Americans previously detained in North Korea were. But Bae's case has complications of its own, including Christian proselytizing in violation of North Korea's laws.
Unlike past foreigners, who mostly got in trouble for crossing illegally into North Korea, "it seems that Mr. Bae indeed was involved with what constitutes subversive activities from North Korea's official point of view," Lankov said.
North Korea may be concerned such activities could increase, and want to make Bae an example. Jun, who also did missionary work, was released on humanitarian grounds in 2011 after promising it wouldn't happen again. Washington was considering giving North Korea food aid at the time, but denied there was any connection between his release and providing aid.
"North Korean decision-makers understand that such cases attract much international attention, and they are likely to release him when it will serve their political purposes — that is, when they judge that such a gesture will help them to squeeze more aid from the U.S."
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson sought Bae's release when he traveled to North Korea in January with Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, but was not even allowed to see the detainee. The Obama administration frowned on that trip because it took place as the U.S. was seeking to crank up diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang over a long-range rocket test.
Former State Department official Evans Revere, who negotiated with North Korean diplomats at the U.N. mission over the detention of two Korean-American detainees in North Korea the late 1990s, said he is surprised Pyongyang has allowed Bae's case to drag on for so long.
Revere, former director of the department's Korean Desk, said typically there would be a constant conversation between officials of the two sides about the detainee, in person or by phone, to pave the way for the release within weeks or months. But this time, he suggested, North Korea's security agencies may want to use Bae's case as a warning against activism by foreigners.
AP writers Matthew Pennington in Washington and Foster Klug and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.