The White House has urged North Korea to release Christian missionary Kenneth Bae, who has been imprisoned at a labor camp for over a year, and Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old U.S. veteran of the Korean War who has been held there since October.
"We remain deeply concerned about the welfare of the U.S. citizens held in custody," Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said, according to The Associated Press.
"Kenneth Bae has been in DPRK custody for over a year, and we continue to urge the DPRK authorities to grant him amnesty and immediate release," Hayden said.
Bae, a U.S. Christian missionary who was based in China leading tours into North Korea, 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, 46, is the longest-serving American detainee in North Korea since the end of the war in 1953, according to activists.
There are at least another 100,000 Christians in North Korea's harsh prison camps, where prisoners face torture, forced labor and possible execution, according to Christian groups.
Bae's family in the U.S. has pleaded for his release, and the U.S. State department sent Ambassador Robert King, the president's special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, to travel to Pyongyang with hopes of negotiating his freedom, but North Korea's autocratic government has so far refused to comply.
Bae's mother visited him in prison last month. "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..."
Bae's sister, Terri Chung, has earlier said his 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."
Hayden also referred to Newman's "advanced age and health conditions," urging the DPRK "to release Mr. Newman so he may return home and reunite with his family."
On Saturday, North Korea's state media claimed that the U.S. veteran apologized for alleged crimes during the war and for "hostile acts" against the state during a recent trip.
"During the Korean War, I have been guilty of a long list of indelible crimes against the DPRK government and Korean people," North Korea's KCNA news agency quoted Newman as writing. A video and photos of Newman, a California native, were also released by Pyongyang.
KCNA said Newman tried to meet with surviving soldiers he had trained to fight the North during the Korean War.
However, Newman's statement is being seen as coerced. His four-page statement had grammatical errors. "I want not punish me," reads one line.
North Korea has never had democracy. Since its formation in 1948, the nation has been ruled by a one party, the Korea Worker's Party, led by one family, the Kims.