WASHINGTON The United States will send its North Korean human rights envoy to Pyongyang this week to seek the release of an imprisoned U.S. Christian missionary, the State Department said on Tuesday.
Robert King, special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, will travel to Pyongyang on Friday at the invitation of the government on a "humanitarian mission focused on securing the release of U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae," the department said in a statement.
King will ask North Korea to "pardon Mr. Bae and grant him special amnesty on humanitarian grounds so that he can be reunited with his family and seek medical treatment," it added.
The White House urged North Korea on Tuesday to grant Bae clemency and allow him to return to the United States.
In April, Bae was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour after North Korea's Supreme Court convicted him of state subversion. The court said Bae, 45, used his tourism business to form groups to overthrow the government.
Bae was detained in November as he led a tour group through the northern region of the country. His sentencing came amid acrimonious relations between Pyongyang and Washington over the reclusive state's nuclear program.
Bae's sister, Terri Chung, told Reuters on August 10 that her brother had been held at a prison for foreigners and put to work ploughing and planting fields.
He was transferred to a state hospital because he suffered from a range of health problems, including an enlarged heart, chronic diabetes as well as back and leg pain, she said.
North Korea has used the release of high-profile American prisoners as a means of garnering prestige or recognition, rather than economic gain, by portraying visiting dignitaries as paying homage to the country and its leader.
That pattern has complicated the response from U.S. lawmakers and the State Department, which has called for Bae's immediate release on "humanitarian grounds," but had resisted sending high-profile envoys to negotiate.
Reports last month that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was set to visit North Korea to negotiate for Bae were denied.
In an Internet petition urging President Barack Obama to secure "special amnesty" for his father, Jonathan Bae wrote: "We have been distraught by my father's deteriorating health and his sentence of hard labour. However, we have not given up hope because we have faith in our government to represent and protect American citizens here and abroad."
Rick Larsen, a U.S. congressman from Washington state, where Bae's family lives, has advocated for Bae's release.
"Kenneth's family has waited in anguish and uncertainty, but has never wavered in their tireless advocacy on his behalf," Larsen said in a statement.
(Reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington and Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Stacey Joyce)
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