Jailed US citizen Kenneth Bae meets mother in North Korea
Kenneth Bae is said to be suffering serious health problems and to have lost more than 23 kilograms since being jailed
The mother of Kenneth Bae, a US citizen jailed in North Korea, was allowed to meet with her ailing son on Friday and said he “did not look that bad”, according to a report.
Myunghee Bae met her son, being held on charges of attempting to topple the regime, at a hospital a day after she arrived in the reclusive communist state, Japan’s Kyodo News agency reported.
He is said to be suffering serious health problems and to have lost more than 23 kilograms since being jailed.
But Kyodo quoted his mother, known by her Korean name Song Myung-hee, as saying her son “did not look that bad”.
Bae told his mother that his health had improved, Kyodo said, adding there may be another meeting between them as she is set to stay in North Korea for five days.
Bae, a 44-year-old tour operator also known by his Korean name Pae Jun-ho, was arrested last November as he entered the northeastern port city of Rason.
He was sentenced to 15 years hard labour on charges that he was trying to bring down the regime of its young leader, Kim Jong-un.
Bae was transferred from a prison camp to a hospital in Pyongyang on August 5, said the Chosun Sinbo, a pro-Pyongyang newspaper published in Japan, which normally speaks for the regime in the North.
In a video released before her departure from the US, where she lives with family members, Bae’s mother expressed shock at how ill her son looked during an interview from prison in July.
“My heart was broken into pieces when his prison interview was released on July 3 because his appearance was very shocking,” she said.
“He looked so different and he lost so much weight. I could not believe that prisoner was my son.”
North Korea, which strictly bans religious proselytising, has said Bae was a Christian evangelist who brought in “inflammatory” material.
US officials say Bae is now very sick, and have called for his release as a humanitarian gesture.
Bae’s sister Terri Chung said earlier that her brother had lost more than 50 pounds and had problems with his kidneys and liver.
Bae was sentenced at a time of heightened military tensions on the Korean peninsula, leading to suggestions that Pyongyang hoped to use him as a diplomatic bargaining chip to extract concessions from Washington.
The North has staunchly denied the suggestion, and indicated that it wants policy changes, not diplomacy, from Washington to secure Bae’s freedom.
In August, North Korea issued and then rescinded an invitation for US diplomat Robert King to visit Pyongyang for talks on Bae’s release.
North Korea has in the past freed detained Americans after visits from high-level emissaries such as former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said there might have been prior discussions between North Korea and the United States over Bae’s mother’s trip to Pyongyang.
“Despite its denial, Pyongyang is apparently using Bae’s case as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from Washington,” he said.
“After all, if there is a positive response from Washington, North Korea will invite an American envoy again for talks on Bae’s release and other pending issues.”
In the heat of a crisis over its nuclear programme earlier this year, North Korea carried out its third nuclear test and threatened to strike the United States, but tensions have since eased.
Washington has been cool to North Korean overtures to restart talks, saying it is only interested in sitting down if Pyongyang commits to giving up its atomic weapons.
Releasing Bae, something the United States has been seeking for months, could help foster goodwill between the two nations.