American envoy to visit North Korea seeking release of imprisoned US citizen

Posted on : 2013-08-29 16:50 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Robert King’s trip would be first by a senior US official in two years; Kenneth Bae has been held since late 2012
Robert King
Robert King

By Park Byong-su, staff reporter

A US special envoy on North Korean human rights issues will visit Pyongyang on Aug. 30 to seek the release of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American currently imprisoned in the country.

The visit by Robert King is the first official trip to North Korea by a senior US official since Kim Jong-un took power, and could mark a turning point in improving North Korea-US relations.

On Aug. 27, the US State Department issued a short, three-sentence press release about the visit but did not hold separate briefing on the issue. The release said that King would “request the DPRK [North Korea] pardon Mr. Bae and grant him special amnesty on humanitarian grounds so that he can be reunited with his family and seek medical treatment.”

King, who is currently in Japan after visiting China and South Korea, plans to board a military aircraft at a base near Tokyo for a two-day visit to Pyongyang. He is expected to return with Bae.

With its emphasis on “humanitarian” grounds, the US is suggesting that the issue of Bae’s possible release is being treated separately from political concerns such as the North Korean nuclear program. A senior official with the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs cautioned against reading too much into it.

“Ambassador King’s duties have nothing to do with the North Korean nuclear program, and the US has said he is traveling there strictly to deal with Bae. It would obviously help to create a favorable mood, but it would be going overboard to predict this will lead to direct dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

But other visits by King in the past have served to get dialogue going between the two sides. In May 2011, he visited to evaluate the food distribution situation and returned with Korean-American businessman Eddie Jun, who had been detained there for six months. Three rounds of senior-level dialogue ensued in July and October of that year and February of the next, culminating in the so-called February 29 Agreement trading US food aid for a freeze in the North Korean nuclear program. Washington also insisted King’s visit at that time was only for “humanitarian” purposes, which should be considered separate from political ones.

Also drawing notice is the fact that King’s visit comes after an Aug. 27 visit to North Korea by Wu Dawei, China’s special representative on Korean Peninsula affairs and senior representative to the six-party talks on the nuclear issue. King and Wu have little chance of meeting in North Korea, but observers are predicting that the moves by Washington and Beijing, together with recent improvements in inter-Korean relations, are increasing the chances of resumed dialogue on the nuclear issue.

“It’s still too early to talk about dialogue, since there haven’t been any sincere steps taken by North Korea, but if Kenneth Bae is released, it could be considered the removal of one obstacle to North Korea-US dialogue,” said another Ministry of Foreign Affairs official.

The State Department had previously dismissed speculation that King would be visiting. When reporters asked during his South Korea visit on Aug. 26 if he had any plans to visit, King replied with a curt “no.”

But when Ambassador King visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government offices in South Korea, he reportedly explained his planned visit and asked for cooperation.

“It’s a sensitive issue, but I think Ambassador King would have had a hard time stating the exact truth,” a Ministry of Foreign Affairs senior official said.

The State Department press release said King’s visit was “at the invitation of the DPRK government.” But the AP quoted a US official as saying that Washington had actually proposed the visit some weeks before, and North Korea only recently agreed to it.

The Washington Post reported “intensive talks” had gone on behind the scenes for the past two weeks and observed, “Bae’s release, if it comes, would follow a pattern of North Korean negotiations.”

Pyongyang had initially hoped for a visit from former US President Jimmy Carter, but appears to have agreed to allow King’s visit instead after the cold response from Washington.

 US special envoy on North Korean human rights
US special envoy on North Korean human rights

Bae, 45, whose Korean name is Bae Jun-ho, was arrested in the Rason Free Economic Zone last November for “scheming to overturn the republic” while operating a North Korea travel agency from China.

The issue was the photographing of so-called “kkotjebi,” young orphans begging on the streets in North Korea. The unflattering images were seen as potentially serving hostile ends. On Apr. 30, Bae was convicted of “anti-republic hostilities” in a North Korean court and sentenced to 15 years of “labor enlightenment.” Since May 14, he has been incarcerated at a “special reeducation camp.” He is the first US citizen ever to serve time at one.

The US initially hoped to work out a possible release late last year with visits by Carter and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, but the plans fell through. It has also issued repeated calls for Bae’s release, but North Korea has implicitly demanded a more “sincere” response. This could be an attempt by North Korea to use Bae’s detention as leverage to increase contact with the US and hasten direct dialogue with Washington or a resumption of the six-party talks.


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