North Korea has turned back on its decision to discuss the possible release of imprisoned Christian missionary Kenneth Bae by rescinding its invitation to an American special envoy, blaming a planned joint military exercise between the U.S. and South Korea.
"We are deeply disappointed by the [Democratic People's Republic of Korea's] decision – for a second time – to rescind its invitation for Ambassador [Robert] King to travel to Pyongyang to discuss Kenneth Bae's release," an unnamed State Department official told Fox News.
"We again call on the DPRK to grant Bae special amnesty and immediate release as a humanitarian gesture so he may reunite with his family and seek medical care. We will continue to work actively to secure Mr. Bae's release. Per our long-standing offer, we remain prepared to send Ambassador King to North Korea in support of Mr. Bae's release."
Bae, an American citizen who was arrested in November 2012 while working as a tour operator from China to North Korea and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor supposedly for making plots against the government, was recently moved from a hospital to a labor camp.
The State Department expressed deep concerns on Friday after it found out about the move, noting that Bae is suffering from long-term illnesses and needs proper care.
The U.S. had hoped to send King, the special envoy for North Korean Human Rights issues, to the Pacific nation to discuss Bae's release and have him return home to his family in America, but North Korea's objection to planned military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea later this month has squashed those plans.
The military drills are scheduled to be held from Feb. 24 to April 18, Reuters reported. North Korea called the drills a "prelude to war" and warned that they further strain relations between the two Koreas.
Meanwhile, Bae's family in the U.S. called his relocation to a labor camp "devastating."
"We're really discouraged and concerned," said Terri Chung, his sister, in an interview with CNN.
"This is our whole life. We will not rest easy until his feet touch U.S. soil," Chung continued, who has led a campaign in the U.S. calling for her brother's release.
President Barack Obama has also called for Bae's release, mentioning him by name at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington last week.
"We pray for Kenneth Bae, a Christian missionary who's been held in North Korea for 15 months, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor," Obama said. "His family wants him home. And the United States will continue to do everything in our power to secure his release because Kenneth Bae deserves to be free."
North Korea has not clearly defined the terms or even the possibility of releasing the 45-year old Christian missionary. In January, the North Korean ambassador to the U.K. suggested in an interview that Bae should serve the full 15 years of his prison sentence, but did not rule out a potential pardon.
"He's now receiving fair treatment, though he spent 15 months in Pyongyang, when sick he has received medical treatment. He will be released when he finishes his sentence," ambassador Hyun Hak-bong told Sky News.