After struggling with life-threatening health issues earlier this year, Kenneth Bae of Lynnwood may be sent back to a North Korean labor camp, according to CNN, which cites a Japanese newspaper.
Bae, who’s been North Korea’s longest-held U.S. captive since the Korean War, pleaded for quick intervention while wearing a blue labor camp uniform in a video interview obtained by CNN this week. Complications from diabetes, an enlarged heart and back problems prompted his hospitalization from August to January, and then again at the end of March.
“My main concern right now is my physical condition,” Bae said in the video. “Doing hard labor for eight hours a day for the next couple months will be difficult.”
Bae’s family, which includes three children, asked that his supporters pray for his health at 7 p.m. Friday, his 46th birthday. He had problems with his lungs and liver during his last hospital stay, said his sister, Terri Chung.
While still thankful for efforts made so far to negotiate a release in the past, Bae’s family asked today for the U.S. government to increase efforts to save him before his declining health continues to cause irreparable damage or even death. The latter fate is not uncommon in North Korean prisons called gulags. Prisoners often die of inhumane treatment that includes starvation.
Several attempts to negotiate for his release, including a hope that celebrity Dennis Rodman might be able to use “basketball diplomacy” to change North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s mind, have failed so far.
“We’re told (the U.S. Department of State is) working things behind the scenes and we believe that, but we respectfully request those efforts be increased,” Bae’s sister said in an interview Thursday. “We don’t think his body can take it, this yoyo-ing from prison to hospitalization for several months.”
Chung has taken leave from her job as an English instructor at North Seattle Community College to pursue efforts to bring her brother back full time. She says her new full-time advocacy effort consist of never-ending letter-writing campaigns, promoting the #bringBaeback hashtag on social media, and meeting with members of the U.S. government who might be able to help. Friday, it will include sharing a birthday cake for Bae with people helping Chung to try to bring him back.
“I’ve been to (Washington,) D.C., twice this year to secure meetings at the State Department,” Chung said. “It’s an endless search for contacts who could help — which door can I knock down that might have more influence in the U.S. government. Who has more decision-making power?”
North Korea sentenced Bae, a Christian, to 15 years of hard labor in May 2013 for “hostile acts” against the regime. He was arrested in November 2012 while leading the kind of tourism trip he’d led several times before in Rason, a city in North Korea. Bae is one of three Americans being held in North Korea after Matthew Miller Todd was taken into custody in April and Jeffrey Fowle in June, according to CNN.
Chung says news that Bae might be back at a labor camp was a devastating shock Thursday morning. She said his U.S.-based family hadn’t gotten an update on his condition since April and are now fearing for his life more than ever.
“We’ve been in a sort of black hole of information since then,” said Chung. “It’s hard to know for sure what the State Department is planning to do to help him, but whatever it is, it needs to be now. We can’t afford to waste any more time.”