Kenneth Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, said a CNN interview with her brother and two other Americans who are being held in North Korea shows her brother’s health deteriorating rapidly. She again called for U.S. government officials to help secure his release.
The CNN interview, broadcast Monday morning, came as a surprise to the news crew, which was on a government tour in North Korea, according to the article posted on CNN.com. Bae, a Lynnwood resident, along with fellow detainees Matthew Todd Miller and Jeffrey Edward Fowle, were each given five minutes in a Pyongyang hotel to talk with CNN.
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Chung said it’s been “really hard because we have so little access to my brother — so little news that goes back and forth. We have to resort to these little glimpses that are released on television. … To see him plead for U.S. government help and intervention over and over again is very hard.”
North Korea sentenced Bae, a Christian, to 15 years of hard labor in May 2013 for “hostile acts” against the regime. North Korea claimed Bae was part of a Christian plot to overthrow the regime, according to CNN. He is North Korea’s longest-held U.S. captive since the Korean War.
Bae was arrested in November 2012 while leading the kind of tourism trip he’d led several times before in Rason, a North Korean city.
Since being sentenced, Bae has struggled with health problems that have twice put him in a hospital. He was sent back to a labor camp about a month ago after his latest stay at a hospital.
In the CNN interview, Bae said he was doing hard labor eight hours a day, six days a week in the labor camp.
“I’m sure they are very worried about my health at this time,” he said in the interview. “Even though the last month and a half…. it’s been failing. Right now what I can say to my family and friends is to continue to pray for me and continue their efforts on the ground to get me released.”
Bae has diabetes and a back injury that flared up when he was sent back to the labor camp the first time, and the family learned last month that he was suffering lung and liver problems, his sister said Monday.
“If he’s out working the field, I think he’s probably experiencing severe back pain,” said Chung, who lives in Edmonds. Seeing her brother’s current condition on television “does exacerbate our concerns. He has lost quite a bit of weight.”
Chung said her family had been told that the U.S. State Department is working behind the scenes “but we’re not privy to the details of what that might be.”
Bae’s family and friends are continuing their efforts to secure his release, including ongoing letter-writing campaigns and contacting U.S. government representatives. Chung is planning a trip this month to Washington, D.C., to seek meetings at the State Department, White House and with congressional leaders.
“We’ve been at this for almost two years now,” she said. “With his health deteriorating so quickly, we’re feeling the urgency more than ever” to secure his release.
Chung wonders if North Korea granting the latest interview “is signaling an opening. I would really urge our leaders to grab this opportunity we’ve been waiting for for so long to engage in dialogue that will result in all three of them coming home.”
Information from Seattle Times archives was used in this report.
Update 12:10 p.m.:
Chung issued a statement, saying:
Today I saw my brother, Kenneth Bae, trying to hold it together as he spoke with a reporter from CNN, telling people about his life in a DPRK (North Korean) labor camp. Kenneth does not have this Labor Day off, clearly, and I implore the State Department to do everything in its power to see my brother released. I also ask for prayers and advocacy from every American who is enjoying their freedom today.
Kenneth is about as isolated as any human could be—the sole prisoner in this North Korean labor camp, with passing conversation only with guards. As an incredibly friendly and social man, the psychological pain of isolation and worry for his family must weigh on him as much as the physical agony. He is normally cheerful—larger than life—but I could not see that man today.
We have always been concerned about his health, as it was clear that his severe back problems were once again hurting him as he tried to sit up for the interview. Working eight hours a day of hard labor—his sentence—is the last thing his body needs.
To the authorities of DPRK: Please have mercy. It is in your power to release my brother. You could do it today. Please do so. He has confessed to the crimes for which he has been charged, and he has served a longer detainment than any other American since the war.
To Secretary of State Kerry and the State Department: I know that you are working behind the scenes, and my family sincerely appreciates the efforts put forth on behalf of my brother. The time is now—respectfully—to step up every diplomatic effort to release Kenneth, a US citizen.
To President Obama: At the national prayer breakfast Feb. 6, you said “…the United States will continue to do everything in our power to secure his release, because Kenneth Bae deserves to be free.” President Obama, please do everything in your power.
Our hearts and prayers also go out to the families of Jeffrey Fowle and Mathew Miller, the other detained Americans. Indeed, this is a difficult road.
Related story: Americans detained in North Korea call for U.S. help