SEATTLE – An American man detained in North Korea for the past nine months has been hospitalized after losing more than 50 pounds, and the need to bring him home is becoming more urgent, his sister said Sunday.
Kenneth Bae, a 45-year-old tour operator and Christian missionary, was arrested in November and accused of subversive activities against the authoritarian government. He was sentenced in May to 15 years hard labor, and in letters to his family in the Seattle area he described working in the fields weeding and planting beans and potatoes.
Bae's sister, Terri Chung, of Edmonds, said Sunday the family recently learned that he has been transferred from the labor camp to a hospital. Her brother suffers from diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain, she said.
"He's considerably weaker," Chung said. "There's more urgency than ever to bring him home."
A deputy ambassador from Sweden met with Bae at the hospital Friday, Chung said. Sweden represents American interests in North Korea because the U.S. has no official diplomatic relations with the country.
North Korea, analysts say, has previously used detained Americans as bargaining chips in a standoff with the United States, which has long pressed Pyongyang to abandon a nuclear program estimated to have a handful of crude atomic weapons.
Although there have been some tentative recent signs of diplomacy, tensions are still high on the Korean Peninsula after an April and March that saw Pyongyang unleash a torrent of warlike threats at Washington and Seoul in response to tightened U.N. sanctions over a February nuclear test by the North.
North Korea wants to use Bae's imprisonment and health problems to get a visit from a senior U.S. envoy in the hopes of eventually restarting talks with a reluctant Washington, said Chang Yong Seok, a North Korea expert at Seoul National University.
Bae is at least the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009. The others were eventually allowed to leave without serving out their terms, some after prominent Americans, including former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, visited North Korea.
The government of young North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who took power in late 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, may also be using Bae's alleged missionary work in the North to shore up domestic support by highlighting a perceived outside threat to the country.
"This provides a good narrative for the North to show its people that the regime's very existence is still under threat" from the United States, Chang said.
Bae, a father of three, was born in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. with his parents and sister in 1985. For the past seven years he has been living in China, and a couple of years ago began leading small tour groups, mostly of American and Canadian citizens, into a "special economic zone" designed to encourage commerce in the northeastern region of Roson in North Korea, Chung said.
Several years ago, Bae gave a sermon in which he advocated bringing Americans to North Korea for a mass prayer session to bring about the reunification of North and South Korea. The charges against him included "hostile acts" against the government.
The U.S. State Department has called for his release on humanitarian grounds.
Bae's recent letters to his family urged them to take a more prominent role in advocating for his release, and on Saturday night they held a prayer vigil at a Seattle church to publicize his case. About 180 people attended, said Chung, who teaches English composition at a Seattle community college.
Bae's son has started an online petition calling for his freedom.