WASHINGTON — A Christian missionary from Lynnwood imprisoned in North Korea last year could be freed within days on humanitarian grounds, the Obama administration said Tuesday.
In a deal worked out with the secretive Pyongyang regime, Robert King, a U.S. special envoy, will travel to North Korea on Friday and request a pardon and amnesty for Kenneth Bae, 45, before returning — hopefully with Bae, U.S. officials said.
Bae, who is also a tour operator, was arrested in November and accused of committing “hostile acts” against North Korea and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor. He suffers multiple health problems and was recently hospitalized.
Washington has been calling for Pyongyang to grant amnesty since Bae was sentenced on April 30.
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Shortly after his conviction, Washington began a quiet outreach to North Korea through Pyongyang’s office at the United Nations, a senior Obama administration official said. Intensive talks began about two weeks ago, said the official, who requested anonymity to describe the unusual communication.
King’s visit will be the first public trip to North Korea by an administration official in more than two years and could provide an opening for an improvement in relations severely strained by Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
King will fly to Pyongyang on Friday from Tokyo on a U.S. military plane, and fly out on Saturday.
“Ambassador King will request the DPRK pardon Mr. Bae and grant him special amnesty on humanitarian grounds so that he can be reunited with his family and seek medical treatment,” the department said in a statement. DPRK refers to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington said she spoke with Secretary of State John Kerry on Aug. 19 about Bae, citing Bae’s health in urging quick action.
When King last visited North Korea in May 2011 to assess the impoverished North’s food situation, he came home with Eddie Jun, the last American to be held and later freed by Pyongyang. Jun, a Korean American from California, was arrested for alleged unauthorized missionary work during several business trips to the country. He was released on humanitarian grounds.
Bae’s sister in Edmonds said earlier this month that her brother had been moved from a labor camp to a hospital after losing more than 50 pounds. Terri Chung says her brother suffers from diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain.
U.S. officials say Washington first made its offer to send King to North Korea several weeks ago, but Pyongyang only recently took them up on it. Pyongyang has yet to declare it will release Bae.
North Korea and the U.S. do not have formal diplomatic relations, and their tenuous ties have been in a tailspin for more than a year after Pyongyang conducted long-range rocket launches and a February nuclear test in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. When sanctions were then tightened, North Korea issued dire threats against the U.S. and its allies.
North Korea has dialed down its rhetoric in recent months and moved to improve relations with rival South Korea, a U.S. ally.
North Korea, analysts say, has previously used detained Americans as bargaining chips in its standoff with the U.S. over its nuclear and missile programs. Multination aid-for-disarmament talks have been on hold since 2009, and efforts by Washington to negotiate a freeze in the North’s nuclear program in exchange for food aid collapsed 18 months ago.
Material from The Associated Press and The Washington Post was used for this report.