Updated at 3:15 p.m. ET on 2013-8-30
North Korea has withdrawn an invitation to a U.S. envoy who was set to travel to Pyongyang to seek the release of an imprisoned American tour operator cum Christian missionary held since the end of last year, the State Department said Friday.
Robert King, the special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, was to have left for Pyongyang Friday on a mission aimed at negotiating the release of Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old Korean American who the North said brought "inflammatory" material across the border when he was arrested in November 2012.
But State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that Pyongyang had abruptly canceled the trip, adding that Washington was “surprised and disappointed by North Korea’s decision.”
She said in a statement that North Korea has informed the United States that it has “rescinded its invitation” for Robert King “to travel to Pyongyang August 30-31 on a humanitarian mission focused on securing the release of U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae.”
“We have sought clarification from [North Korea] about its decision and have made every effort so that Ambassador King’s trip could continue as planned or take place at a later date,” she said, adding that the envoy intends to return to Washington from Tokyo on Aug. 31.
Harf said that Washington remains “gravely concerned” about the health of Bae and that it would continue to urge the North to grant him a special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds.
The U.S. first made its offer to send King to North Korea several weeks ago, but Pyongyang had only recently responded by offering an invitation, according to a report by the Associated Press. The North had not announced that it would release Bae.
Bae's sister, Terri Chung, said Friday that her family was "disappointed" by the news that King was unable to travel to North Korea, but remained optimistic that Pyongyang and Washington would "resume talks soon, ultimately leading to my brother being released."
"It has been 301 days since Kenneth has been detained," she said in a statement.
"With every day, we continue to pray ... We miss Kenneth and remain concerned about his health," she said, adding that the family is "not giving up hope for a peaceful and timely resolution."
North Korea’s move to call off King’s visit drew concern from U.S. Congressman Rick Larsen, a representative of the Bae family’s home state of Washington, who said in a statement Friday that he was “disappointed by North Korea’s decision to reverse course.”
“I know this setback will be difficult for the Bae family who had hoped for good news today,” he said.
“The North Koreans gain nothing from this course reversal. It is time to let Kenneth come home to his family and get the medical attention he needs.”
Bae, whose Korean name is Pae Jun-Ho, was arrested in North Korea in November 2012 as he entered the northeastern port city of Rason while leading a tour group. He was convicted on April 30 and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor on charges of trying to topple North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's regime.
Bae's sister told Reuters news agency earlier this month that her brother had been held at a prison for foreigners and put to work plowing and planting fields.
He was transferred to a state hospital because he suffered from a range of health problems, including an enlarged heart and chronic diabetes, as well as back and leg pain, she had said.
Bae has reportedly lost around 50 pounds (23 kilograms) and also has had problems with his kidneys and liver since his arrest.
The American citizen was jailed during a recent spike in tension between the U.S. and North Korea over the latter’s weapons program, following its third nuclear test in February and an earlier rocket launch judged to be in violation of international sanctions.
Pyongyang has refused to entertain demands that it give up its atomic arsenal, which Washington has said is a prerequisite to any future talks.
The regime has repeatedly denied that it is using Bae as a bargaining chip in relations with the U.S., though it has indicated that it wants policy changes from Washington to secure his freedom.
Last month, there were conflicting reports about former U.S. President Jimmy Carter making a visit to North Korea to negotiate for Bae, but these were later denied.
Carter and another ex-president Bill Clinton had previously made visits to North Korea that led to freedom for detained Americans.
King is preparing to conclude a 10-day trip through Asia, which began Aug. 19, during which he was scheduled to discuss human rights in North Korea with officials in China, South Korea and Japan, as well as with North Korean defectors.
During his last trip to North Korea in May 2011 to assess the impoverished North's food situation, King returned with a Korean-American, Eddie Jun, who was held in Pyongyang for alleged unauthorized missionary work. He was also released on humanitarian grounds.