US civil rights leader Jesse Jackson says he is ready to meet North Korea’s leader to free imprisoned American Kenneth Bae and reduce ill will between the two countries, as the jailed missionary’s family expressed sadness that Pyongyang scrapped an invitation to hold talks on his release.
US officials have said that Jackson volunteered to travel to Pyongyang after the totalitarian state abruptly cancelled the visit of a US envoy, Robert King, who aimed to free Korean-American tour operator Kenneth Bae.
Jackson said in a televised interview with CNN that he had put “high hopes” in King, but after the trip was called off, wrote a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Jackson said he told Kim he would “like to meet with him face-to-face to seek to work out some mutual respect, some recognising each other’s sovereignty, each other’s will to peace”. It was unclear how he sent the letter to the North Korean leader or whether it was received.
The cancellation of the invitation, announced by the State Department on Sunday, comes only days after a detained Bae told a pro-Pyongyang newspaper that he expected to meet this month with King.
North Korea, which technically remains at war with US ally South Korea, has defiantly pursued nuclear weapons in what it says is its effort to counter hostility from the United States.
Bae, described by a North Korean court as a militant Christian evangelist, was arrested in November 2012 and later sentenced to 15 years of hard labour on charges of seeking to topple the government.
‘Just an ordinary father’
Terri Chung, the prisoner’s sister, said that the family has been in contact with Jackson for several weeks and has been “touched by his warmth, generosity of spirit and his investment in bringing Kenneth home”.
“Regardless of the outcome, we are deeply grateful to Reverend Jackson for his proactive pursuits of Kenneth’s freedom,” she said in a statement.
Chung said that the family was “alarmed” at news that Bae – said to suffer from back pain and other medical conditions – had been sent back to a labour camp after being treated at a hospital after he lost 23kg in weight.
“We remain gravely concerned that the stress Kenneth endures at the labour camp will be too much for him. We do not know whether his body will be able to withstand the strains of hard labour, eight hours a day, six days a week,” she said.
Jackson, a long-time activist who campaigned with the late civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, has frequently sought to assist in international crises. He secured Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s release of US and British citizens before the 1991 Gulf War and later met Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to bring home three US prisoners of war.
Chung said Bae’s relatives were encouraged by a growing number of people calling for her brother’s freedom.
“It has been 474 days since Kenneth has been detained in the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea],” the statement said. “Kenneth is just an ordinary American father of three who is desperately trying to return to his family.”
The statement continued, imploring US and North Korean leaders “to work together to let this US citizen come home to his family”
Bae, 45, of Lynnwood, a suburb about 15 miles north of Seattle, had been living in China for seven years. He was taken into custody in November 2012 while leading a tour group into a North Korean economic zone.
The North accused Bae of smuggling in inflammatory litreature and trying to establish a base for anti-government activities at a border city hotel.
Chung says Bae’s Christian faith got him into trouble.
King still ready for talks
Cancelling King’s visit signals an apparent protest by North Korea of upcoming annual US-South Korea military drills. North Korean officials also say the US has mobilised nuclear-capable B-52 bombers during training near the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea calls the planned drills a rehearsal for invasion, a claim the allies deny.
On Monday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said King was still prepared to meet with North Korean leaders in the future.
She also welcomed efforts by Jackson to secure Bae’s release. “We support the efforts, of course, of the family but also of Reverend Jackson to bring Kenneth Bae home,” Harf said.
Analysts say North Korea has previously used detained Americans as leverage in its stand-off with the US over its nuclear and missile programmes but North Korea denies this.
In August, North Korea also rescinded an invitation for King to visit, saying Washington had perpetrated a grave provocation by flying B-52 bombers during military drills with South Korea.