SEOUL — North Korea has rescinded its invitation for a senior US diplomat to travel to Pyongyang on a mission to secure the release of a Christian missionary imprisoned on charges of committing hostile acts against the government, the State Department said Friday.
The diplomat, Robert King, Washington’s ambassador for North Korean human rights issues, had been scheduled to fly from Tokyo to Pyongyang on Saturday. The State Department had earlier said that King intended to request a pardon and amnesty for the missionary, Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American from Washington state.
“We are surprised and disappointed by North Korea’s decision” to revoke the invitation, a State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said in a statement. “We have sought clarification from the DPRK about its decision and have made every effort so that Ambassador King’s trip could continue as planned or take place at a later date.”
The DPRK stands for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
It remained unclear why North Korea had retracted its invitation. The State Department statement said King planned to return to Washington on Saturday.
Bae, 45, has been held in North Korea since November, when he entered the isolated country with a group of visitors. He was trying to build a covert proselytizing operation in Rason, a trading city in northeast North Korea, using a tour business as a front, according to a videotaped sermon he gave at a St. Louis church in 2011.
North Korea officially says it guarantees religious freedom. But human rights activists have long said that the North suppresses Christianity, imposing harsh penalties, including executions, on citizens convicted of contact with missionaries.
On April 30, North Korea’s highest court convicted Bae of committing “hostile acts” against the country and sent him to a prison camp for 15 years of hard labor. Bae was moved to a hospital in Pyongyang earlier this month because of deteriorating health. In a recent interview with Chosun Sinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan, he appealed to Washington to send a high-ranking official to Pyongyang to “apologize” for his alleged crime and help free him.
“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 State Department said.
Terri Chung, Bae’s sister, said in an e-mail that the family was disappointed by the news and hoped that US and North Korean diplomats would resume talks soon that would result in Bae’s release.
“It has been 301 days since Kenneth has been detained,” she said. “We are not giving up hope for a peaceful and timely resolution.”
After raising tensions with a nuclear test in February and threats of war, North Korea has recently begun reaching out to Washington and Seoul for dialogue, and it was widely seen as using the incarceration of Bae as leverage to help achieve that goal. It had previously detained Americans on criminal charges and used them to gain visits by prominent Americans seeking their release, including former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
But the State Department had characterized King’s planned trip as a “humanitarian mission,” focused on winning Bae’s release, and played down any connection between his visit and the North’s longstanding demand for official dialogue.
Washington insisted that there would be no serious negotiation with the North until its government showed concrete signs of giving up its program of nuclear weapons development.
‘We are not giving up hope for a peaceful and timely resolution.’ — Terri Chung, Sister of detained missionary Kenneth Bae
Some analysts have recently begun foreseeing a thaw on the Korean Peninsula, as North and South Korea eased tensions by agreeing to reopen a jointly operated industrial complex and resume reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
A senior Chinese official returned home Friday after a visit to Pyongyang, where he was believed to have discussed restarting long-stalled multilateral talks on ending the North’s nuclear weapons program.