North Korea open to talks on release of jailed American Kenneth Bae after family receive letters in mail

Family passes message in Kenneth Bae's letters to US State Department

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 4:37am

The family of Kenneth Bae, an American sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in North Korea, have received letters from him in the mail for the first time this past week.

They say that his health is worse and ask the family to press the US government to help secure his release, Bae's sister said on Friday.

North Korea experts said the message of the handwritten letters - and their method of delivery, which could not have happened without Pyongyang's approval - suggested that the authorities were open to the idea of negotiations on Bae. That had seemed remote three months ago when he was found guilty of committing "hostile acts" against the government.

North Korea said Bae, 44, a devout Christian, who had sought to build a clandestine proselytising base in a country, where the Communist government regards missionary work as sedition.

The possible opening in Bae's case came against a backdrop of other indications that North Korea, despite its harsh public language toward the US, is pursuing multiple ways of pushing for direct contact after months of threats and new weapons tests. So far, the Obama administration has resisted the overtures.

Bae's sister, Terri Chung, said from her home in Edmonds, Washington, that Bae had been able to communicate a few times during his imprisonment, which began with his arrest in November, though those contacts were through intermediaries acting on behalf of Sweden's ambassador in North Korea, who monitors US interests. Then weeks went by with no further word.

"This past week, we were surprised to receive a packet of letters from Kenneth through the US Postal Service, bearing a Pyongyang postmark," she said. "The packet contained four letters, dated June 13, addressed to his wife, his mum, me and his supporters."

She said that "all the letters contained the same message - Kenneth's health is failing, and he asked us to seek help from our government to bring him home".

Chung said her brother suffered from diabetes, an enlarged heart and back problems.

She declined to share the letters, but said the family conveyed their contents to State Department officials. Patrick Ventrell, a State Department spokesman in Washington, did not return messages seeking comment.

Bae's sentencing came at a time of particularly high tensions between the US and North Korea over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme under its young new leader, Kim Jong-un, further complicating any possible diplomatic efforts aimed at securing his release.

North Korea said Bae had been working as a Christian missionary with the aim of overthrowing its government. In a video given to a Korean church in the US in 2011 and posted online, Bae detailed his activities in North Korea.

The postmark on Bae's mailed letters to his family suggested they were written at about the same time Pyongyang permitted a pro-North Korea group based in Tokyo, Choson Sinbo, to interview him in prison. A video of that interview, broadcast July 3 on CNN, showed Bae looking distressed and thin, his head shaved, dressed in a stained blue jumpsuit with his prison number 103.