U.S. Envoy Heads to N. Korea in Effort to Free Christian Prisoner

By Patrick Goodenough | August 29, 2013 | 4:14 AM EDT

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (AP Photo/Kyodo News, File)

(Update: On Friday, Aug. 30, the State Department announced that North Korea "has informed the United States that it has rescinded its invitation for Special Envoy Robert King to travel to Pyongyang August 30-31 on a humanitarian mission focused on securing the release of U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae. We are surprised and disappointed by North Korea’s decision," the State Department said, adding that it s seeking "clarification" about North Korea's decision. "We remain gravely concerned about Mr. Bae’s health and we continue to urge the DPRK authorities to grant Mr. Bae special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds," the statement said.)

(CNSNews.com) – A senior U.S. official’s visit to North Korea on a mission to secure the release of an imprisoned Korean-American has prompted some optimism about a possible thaw in relations, but other reports suggest that Kim Jong-un’s regime is as hostile and dangerous as its predecessors.

U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights Robert King will begin a two-day visit on Friday in a bid to negotiate the release of Kenneth Bae, a Christian arrested last November and sentenced in April to 15 years’ hard labor for “hostile acts” aimed at bringing down the government.

Previous such missions – by former Presidents Clinton and Carter and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson among others – invariably sparked speculation about improved ties and bargains in the making.

But State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf Wednesday said King’s was “a humanitarian mission solely focused on securing the release of Kenneth Bae.” She declined to link it either to the long-running international standoff over its nuclear weapons programs or any resumption of talks between North Korea and the U.S.

Still, there have been some relatively positive signs in recent days.

North Korea on Thursday agreed to a meeting next week of a newly-formed North-South committee to oversee a joint industrial project at Kaesong. And three days ago China sent a senior official to Pyongyang in a bid to nudge long-stalled “six party” talks over the nuclear weapons dispute.

Those developments and North Korea’s invitation to King suggest an easing in tensions following the crisis and war threats last spring. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reports that many people in the country believe King’s visit “may help create a mood for nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang.”

Yet elsewhere the signs are as bleak as ever.

Earlier this week a first-ever U.N. inquiry into North Korean human rights ended a 10-day visit to South Korea during which it heard graphic testimony of abuses in the North, including torture, forced abortion and public executions.

Slamming the visit, the North’s KCNA news agency called witnesses who gave testimony “human scum,” and lashed out at South Korea for hosting the inquiry and the United States for a plot which it said was designed to “interfere in the ideologies and social systems of sovereign states and change their regimes.”

Meanwhile a bizarre news story making headlines in South Korea on Thursday said that a former girlfriend of the North Korean leader was one of a dozen musicians shot by firing squad for selling home-made sex videos – and for having Bibles in their possession.

A report in Chosun Ilbo, Seoul’s leading conservative daily, cited sources in China as saying the accused group had been “executed with machine guns” last Tuesday, while their families and colleagues watched.

The report said one of those killed, pop singer Hyon Song-wol, had been romantically involved with the then-unmarried Kim Jong-un a decade ago, that his father Kim Jong-il had ordered them to break it off, and that there had later been rumors that the two were having an extramarital affair.

King’s mission to Pyongyang will be the first attempt by a U.S. mediator to secure freedom for an American since Kim Jong-un took over following his father’s death in late 2011.

Bae’s 15-year jail term is believed to be the longest ever handed down to a U.S. citizen in North Korea. The State Department said the envoy will request “special amnesty on humanitarian grounds.”

Bae is reported to be in ill-health, and earlier this month the State Department confirmed that it had learned he had been moved from a prison camp to hospital.

Asked whether King would discuss humanitarian aid for North Korea during the trip, or whether Pyongyang had asked for money in return for his freedom, department spokeswoman Harf said she had no details beyond “my understanding that his mission is solely focused on securing Mr. Bae’s release.”

Days after Bae’s sentencing, a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman rejected as “ridiculous” media speculation that the regime would use his imprisonment as “a political bargaining chip.”

He said North Korea had in the past freed U.S. citizens who had “apologized for their crimes and promised to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents” but Bae’s case showed that “humanitarian generosity will be of no use in ending Americans’ illegal acts.”

Exactly what Bae is accused of remains vague although according to published accounts he ran tours into North Korea from China and allegedly used them to evangelize. State media said he had conducted a “malignant smear campaign” against the government and encouraged its citizens to bring it down through religious activities.

It said he had been caught red-handed with anti-North Korean literature when arrested in Rason, a northern city near the border with China.

North Korea has topped Open Doors USA’s annual list of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians for the past 11 years.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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