North Korea has moved imprisoned US citizen Kenneth Bae from a hospital back to a labor camp, a US official said on Friday, a move that could further complicate efforts to secure his release.
In an interview on Friday with the Chosun Sinbo, a pro-Pyongyang newspaper based in Japan, Bae confirmed that he was transferred back to a “special correctional facility” in Pyongyang on Jan. 20.
Bae, a tour operator described by a North Korean court as a militant Christian evangelist, was arrested in November 2012 and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor on charges of seeking to topple the government.
“The [US] 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,” department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Psaki said that Washington was “gravely concerned” about the health of the Korean-American, who has been in detention for more than 15 months.
“We continue to urge DPRK authorities to grant Mr Bae special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds,” she added.
In his interview with the Chosun Sinbo, Bae expressed gratitude to the North Korean authorities for treating him “humanely” and pleaded with Pyongyang to allow him to return home through negotiations with the US government.
Bae said his daily routine included eight hours of manual labor, followed by rest in the evening with books and TV, but that chronic loin pain made the long hours of work it hard for him.
The interview was conducted by a Chosun Sinbo reporter who accompanied a Swedish embassy official visiting Bae in the camp. The diplomat talked with Bae separately before the interview.
Bae said he had been told by the Swedish diplomat that US Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues Robert King planned to visit the country as early as next week or by the end of this month at the latest to discuss his case.
His family says the 45-year-old is seriously ill.
Bae, also known as Pae Jun-ho, was detained as he entered North Korea’s port city of Rason.
He began serving his sentence in a prison camp in May last year, but in August was admitted to hospital after losing more than 23kg and developing kidney and liver problems.
On Thursday, US President Barack Obama renewed a call for Bae’s release at the country’s annual national prayer breakfast, saying: “Let us never forget those who are persecuted today, among them Americans of faith.”
“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,” Obama said.
Last month, US Secretary of State John Kerry met Bae’s relatives at the State Department, in an apparent signal to Pyongyang to release him.
In a brief appearance before reporters in Pyongyang last month, Bae apologized for and acknowledged that he had participated in anti-government acts — a public confession that observers see as a prerequisite for any release.
His family, which has campaigned hard for his freedom, also apologized in a statement.
The State Department contacted Bae’s family on Friday “as soon as we received the Swedish consular report,” Psaki said.
Since Washington does not have diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, the Swedish embassy acts on its behalf in any communications with the reclusive North Korean authorities.
Psaki said in her statement that Swedish embassy officials had met 10 times with Bae since his detention.
“We continue to work actively to secure Mr Bae’s release,” she said, adding that the offer to send King to the North was still open.
King was invited to North Korea to discuss Bae’s case at the end of August last year, but Pyongyang rescinded the invitation at the 11th hour without explanation.