The family of Kenneth Bae, the Christian missionary and U.S. citizen who has been in prison for nine months in North Korea, is pleading for his release as they have received troubling news about his deteriorating health.
"He doesn't know how much longer his body can stand the physical labor," said Terri Chung, Bae's sister, according to the Associated Press. "Eight hours a day, six days a week in the fields – it's not the kind of thing the average American is used to."
Bae, who worked as a tour guide, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea supposedly for actions he had made against the government. The 45-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen, a father of three, apologized for any wrongdoing earlier this summer in a video message, and shared of the numerous health issues he struggles with, including diabetes, high blood pressure, fatty liver and a back problem.
"I was hoping that my problem would be worked out by end of June. So my hope is that North Korea will forgive, and the U.S. will try harder to get me out speedily. I'm asking for their help," Bae said in the video, which was shared by CNN.
The latest letters he has sent to his family tell of his growing health problems, including blurred vision, which may be linked to his diabetes.
From what is known, Bae had been living for the past seven years in China, and began leading tour groups of American and Canadian citizens into North Korea a few years ago. His sister says that her family is still unsure why exactly he was arrested and imprisoned.
"His personal convictions and his beliefs as a Christian may have been deemed as, I don't know, perhaps hostile acts, but all I know is that he only had the best of intentions to help the people," Chung offered. "Maybe he was a little bit overzealous, I'm not sure."
A number of groups, including the Obama administration, have called for the release of Bae, with the State Department pressuring North Korea in May to grant Bae amnesty.
There has been no word from the isolated Pacific nation about such a gesture, however, and Bae's family continues to plead for his release. Chung and her mother, Myunghee Bae, have scheduled prayer vigils for the imprisoned Christian, hoping that something can indeed be done to spare him from the full 15-year sentence.
"All I know is my brother is a good man," Chung previously said. "He has a huge heart to help people in the nation of North Korea."
"I believe the U.S. government wants to see this American home. But when it's your family member, nothing is enough until he's home," she added.
For the past 11 years, persecution watchdog group Open Doors USA has continuously placed North Korea as the most hostile place for Christians in the world.
"Christians are classified as hostile and face arrest, detention, torture, even public execution. There is a system of labor camps including the renowned prison No. 15, which reportedly houses 6,000 persecuted Christians alone. Despite the severe oppression, there is a growing underground church movement of an estimated 400,000 Christians," Open Doors has written.