American citizen Kenneth Bae, who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor by the North Korean regime, has been moved to a hospital in Pyongyang following a rapid deterioration of his health. The 45-year-old Korean American was a tour business operator working out of China. He was arrested in the special economic zone of Rason in northeastern North Korea in November after leading a group of businessmen there from Yanji, China.
Numerous diplomatic efforts have been made to seek Bae's release but none have met with any degree of success until now. In the wake of his deteriorating condition, it is possible that renewed efforts can be made to seek his release and return to the United States on health grounds. These options should be pursued immediately. Bae has lost more than 50 pounds, has problems with his kidneys and liver, and has a bad back, among other maladies. While the North Korean regime is known for its stubbornness even on issues concerning national security, it has shown signs of opening up to Bae's release.
It is still unclear why exactly Bae was arrested and subsequently subjected to 15 years of hard labor. Initial official North Korean statements back when he was arrested in November 2012 said that he was plotting to bring down the North Korean regime. The North Korean court the matter was referred to convicted him of "hostile acts," a charge much less grave than the original one that prosecutors pressed. The crime of trying to overthrow the government could have resulted in the death penalty. More recently, the North Korean regime has defined those "hostile acts" quite absurdly, claiming Bae was a Christian missionary who flouted the country’s laws on proselytizing. The regime said that Bae smuggled anti-government propaganda into the country, and preached the overthrow of regime as part of a Christian-missionary-backed plan called Operation Jericho.
However, recent developments point towards the North's willingness to open up on the issue. Bae has been allowed to write letters back home that could not have been made possible by full North Korean approval. He has also been allowed to appear in a video describing his health and hopes to be released in a timely manner via negotiations between the North Korean and United States governments.
Although the North has detained American citizens in the past to use them as bargaining chips, the North has indicated that this is not the case with Bae’s detention. It has also, however, often released American citizens that it has captured. Bae is the sixth American known to have been arrested in the North since 2009. The rest have been released or deported. Two were released in 2009 only after former President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang, the North's capital, and met with Kim Jong-il, the North's leader at the time. Another was released in 2010 after a visit by former President Jimmy Carter.
In the light of his deteriorating health, which is fragile enough to warrant a transfer to the hospital for an American citizen held in a North Korean labor camp, renewed efforts should be made to seek his release — even if it means another high-profile visit by a U.S. representative.