The United States said Tuesday that it would dispatch a special envoy to North Korea to pursue the release of an ailing, imprisoned American Christian missionary—the first public trip to the hardline communist nation by a U.S. government official in more than two years.
Robert King, the special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, will travel to Pyongyang on Friday at the invitation of the government "on a humanitarian mission focused on securing the release of U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae," the State Department said in a statement.
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.
"As the U.S. Government has on a number of occasions since the April 30 verdict, Ambassador King will request the DPRK [North Korea] pardon Mr. Bae and grant him special amnesty on humanitarian grounds so that he can be reunited with his family and seek medical treatment," the State Department's statement said.
Bae's sister, Terri Chung, 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.
The White House said in a separate statement on Tuesday that it was "deeply concerned about the health and welfare of" the 45-year-old Bae.
"We urge the government of North Korea to grant special clemency to Mr. Bae immediately and allow him to return home with Ambassador King," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Offer made weeks ago
Washington first made its offer to send King to North Korea several weeks ago, but Pyongyang only recently took them up on the offer, the Associated Press quoted U.S. officials as saying.
Pyongyang has yet to declare it will release Bae.
Two senior officials in President Barack Obama's administration were believed to have made secret visits to North Korea in 2012 in a bid to mend ties but apparently made little headway.
King will fly to Pyongyang on Friday from Tokyo on a U.S. military plane and fly out on Saturday, AP reported.
King's visit could provide an opening for an improvement in relations severely strained by Pyongyang's pursuit of nuclear weapons.
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.
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.
Rick Larsen, a U.S. lawmaker from Washington state where Bae's family lives, said he was encouraged by the State Department’s decision to send King to North Korea, thanking the administration for its continued efforts to secure Bae’s release.
“Kenneth’s family has waited in anguish and uncertainty, but has never wavered in their tireless advocacy on his behalf," he said in a statement.