Kenneth Bae appears in North Korean ‘news conference’
The New York Times
SEOUL, South Korea — A Korean-American missionary from Lynnwood who has been jailed in North Korea for more than a year appeared at a news conference in Pyongyang on Monday and appealed to the U.S. government to negotiate with North Korea to secure his release.
“I believe that my problem can be solved by close cooperation and agreement between the American government and the government of this country,” Kenneth Bae was quoted as saying in an Associated Press dispatch from the North Korean capital.
Bae, 45, wearing a gray cap and uniform with the number 103 on his chest, said the news conference, attended by the AP, Xinhua and a few other foreign media in Pyongyang, was called at his request.
He said he apologized for the anti-North Korean acts he committed and that he has not been treated badly in confinement, the AP reported.
The Chinese news agency Xinhua quoted him as saying that he had benefited from “humanitarian” help given to him by the North Korean government.
But Bae was under guard while he made these comments and it was impossible to confirm whether he was speaking his own mind.
In an interview with a correspondent from a pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan last year, Bae had made similar appeals, asking Washington to send a high-ranking official to Pyongyang to “apologize” for his crime and help free him.
Outside analysts have said that North Korea has likely arranged for Bae to make those comments to outside media to help focus international attention on his case and force the U.S. to engage the North Korean government.
North Korea has allowed Bae to send letters to his family and allowed his mother to visit him in October.
Among at least seven Americans held in North Korea since 2009, Bae is the longest-serving detainee. He was arrested in November 2012 after entering the isolated country through its northeastern city of Rason with a group of visitors.
Bae was a missionary trying to build a covert proselytizing operation in Rason, using a tour business as a front, according to a videotaped sermon he gave at a St. Louis, Mo., church in 2011.
In April last year, North Korea’s highest court convicted Bae of committing “hostile acts” against the country and sent him to a prison camp for 15 years of hard labor. A North Korean government spokesman at the time accused him of plotting to “destroy our system through religious activities against our republic.”
Bae was moved to a Pyongyang hospital in August for back pain and other ailments.
His family and the State Department have repeatedly called for his release on humanitarian grounds, citing his health.
Washington has also criticized North Korea for the severity of the sentence and for the secrecy of the judicial proceedings against Bae.
In August, North Korea abruptly withdrew a proposal to have a U.S. envoy visit Pyongyang to discuss Bae’s release.
Bae remained in North Korean custody even after the North freed another U.S. detainee in December. Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old Korean War veteran who visited North Korea in October, was released after North Korea’s state-run news agency released a video of him reading an “apology” for his “hostile acts” during the war and while he was visiting the country. North Korea said it also considered Newman’s age and health when deciding to free him.
Bae represented a bigger threat than the octogenarian tourist. Although North Korea officially says it guarantees religious freedom, human-rights activists have long said that its regime cracks down on any influence of Christianity, imposing harsh penalties, including executions, against its citizens convicted of contacting missionaries.
Under Kim Jong Un’s leadership, North Korea has called for stepped-up efforts to choke off such outside influences.
After raising tension with a nuclear test and threats of war last year, North Korea has recently begun reaching out to the U.S. and South Korea for dialogue. North Korea had previously used Americans detained on criminal charges to gain visits by prominent U.S. officials seeking their release, including two former presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
The U.S. has insisted that there will be no serious negotiation with the North until its government shows concrete signs of giving up its program of nuclear-weapons development.