Kenneth Bae Becomes Bait for High-Level US Visit to Pyongyang

Korean American tour operator Kenneth Bae has become the latest bait in Pyongyang’s efforts to pressure the US to engage in high-level official dialogue, according to a videotaped interview with Bae released on pro-N. Korean website.

A video posted Tuesday on the Japan-based pro-North newspaper shows a gaunt Bae sitting in a Pyongyang hospital to which he was moved recently from the labor camp where he had been serving a 15 year sentence. He had been arrested in Rason in November and sentenced in May.

“As an American citizen, I request the U.S. government to make active efforts so I can be pardoned and return home,” Bae says in the video. “I think that a high-ranking U.S. official should come here and bring me home, and that such an official should come here as a representative of the U.S. government and apologize and make a request of an early pardon for my release.”

Bae also says that he is suffering from severe back pain and other ailments. The video shows him being visited by a Swedish diplomat acting as a surrogate in the absence of an official US diplomatic presence in Pyongyang.

Pyongyang has been known to coerce US prisoners to make scripted statements on camera, making it impossible to determine whether Bae was speaking of his own free will. He is known to have lost 45 pounds since his imprisonment and was moved to the hospital a week ago after falling severely ill, according to his family.

Bae, 45, had been tried and convicted in May of engaging in hostile acts against the N. Korean government, presumably based on the Christian missionary work in which he is alleged to have engaged while leading a group of Chinese businessmen on a tour of the Rason Special Economic Zone. Bae is known to have taken bread to N. Korean orphanages and is said to have had in his possession a camera containing images of the orphans.

Despite Pyongyang’s earlier assertion that it would not use Bae as a “bargaining chip” as it had done in the past, the release of the video suggests it has had a change of heart. It has been trying unsuccessfully to engage the US in dialogue following imposition of more stringent economic sanctions for its December long-range missile test and its February nuclear test. Those sanctions are believed to have been effective in depriving the North of much of its scant remaining sources of foreign exchange. Washington has insisted that N. Korea renounce its nuclear program as a precondition to dialogue.

The newly released video of Bae appears calculated to bring about a visit by a prominent American. In the past former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter had paid visits to secure the release of several Americans held in N. Korea.

So far Washington has expressed no intention to send a high-level envoy though past visits by Clinton and Carter were billed as purely private trips instead of official ones. On Monday the State Department had repeated its earlier request to Pyongyang to release Bae.