- (Photo: REUTERS/Kyodo)
Kenneth Bae, an imprisoned American Christian sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government, has been moved from a hospital to a labor camp amid "grave concerns" about his health, according to the U.S. State Department.
"The Department of State has learned that the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] transferred Mr. Bae from a hospital to a labor camp, a development with which we are deeply concerned," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement Friday.
She said Swedish diplomats met with Bae on Friday in a labor camp, weeks after the Christian was moved there on Jan. 20. Bae was sent to the hospital on Aug. 5 last year.
"We also remain gravely concerned about Mr. Bae's health, and we continue to urge DPRK authorities to grant Mr. Bae special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds," Psaki added. "We continue to work actively to secure Mr. Bae's release."
The State Department statement comes the day after President Barack Obama prayed for Bae at an annual prayer breakfast. "His family wants him home. And the United States will continue to do everything in our power to secure his release," the president said.
Psaki said the United States is likely to send its human rights envoy for North Korea, Robert King, to Pyongyang to secure Bae's release.
Bae's sister, Terri Chung, told Reuters her brother suffered from a variety of health issues, including diabetes, an enlarged heart, kidney stones and severe back pain. "We are very concerned about his health."
North Korea released 85-year-old U.S. veteran Merrill Newman last December after holding him for more than a week for allegedly making plots against Pyongyang. His release followed a claim in North Korea's state media that he apologized for alleged crimes during the Korean War and for "hostile acts" against the state during a recent trip.
However, Bae continues to be the longest-serving American detainee in North Korea since the end of the war in 1953.
While he was leading tours into North Korea based out of China, Bae was arrested in the city of Rajin on Nov. 3, 2012, supposedly for plots he had made against the government. He was later sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
Bae's family has pleaded for his release, but North Korea has so far refused to comply.
Bae's mother visited him in prison a few months ago. "As a mother, I worry endlessly about his health and I wanna see him and comfort him and hold him in person," she said at the time. "I miss him so much..."
Chung believes Bae's personal convictions and his beliefs as a Christian may have been deemed as hostile acts. "Maybe he was a little bit overzealous, I'm not sure… All I know is my brother is a good man. He has a huge heart to help people in the nation of North Korea," she said earlier.
North Korea has been a brutal dictatorship, ruled by one party, the Korea Worker's Party, and led by one family, the Kims, since its formation in 1948. There are at least 100,000 Christians in that nation's harsh prison camps, where prisoners face torture, forced labor and possible execution, Christian groups say.