The mother of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American who is being held in North Korea and is in failing health, visited him in a Pyongyang hospital Friday and told Japan’s Kyodo News agency that his condition appeared to have improved.
His mother, Myunghee Bae, 69, was permitted by the North Korean authorities to enter the country Thursday for a five-day stay after her repeated requests to see her son, who has been held for nearly a year. It was unclear whether her visit signaled that the North Koreans were preparing to release him.
Kenneth Bae, 45, a tour operator who did Christian missionary work, was detained in November as he entered the port city of Rason. Although North Korea officially says it guarantees religious freedom, human rights activists have long said that the North suppresses Christianity.
Bae was eventually convicted of hostile acts against the country, a serious crime in North Korea, and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in May, adding a new irritant to the chronically antagonistic relationship between North Korea and the United States.
Televised images of him toiling at a prison camp, appearing sickly and tired, traumatized Bae’s family in his home state of Washington, which has undertaken a publicity campaign calling on the North Korean authorities to free Bae as a humanitarian gesture. Within a few months of his sentencing, he was hospitalized for ailments that included diabetes, an enlarged heart, and chronic back pain.
“I saw him at the hospital,” Bae’s mother was quoted as telling Kyodo in a dispatch from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. “His condition seems to be all right, not good, but seems much better.”
Her trip was brokered by Sweden’s Embassy, which has represented US interests in Bae’s case on Washington’s behalf.
The Bae family first disclosed that his mother was in North Korea on Thursday, apparently worried that any advance publicity might cause the reclusive and unpredictable North Korean government to cancel the visit. Once she had safely arrived, the family posted a video of her explaining the purpose of the trip on a website created to advocate for Bae’s release.
Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, said Thursday night in a telephone interview that the family had received little information on his health in recent months, which was among the reasons their mother had been so insistent on seeing him.