By Gene Johnson
SEATTLE — An ailing American who has been detained in North Korea for 11 months has had an emotional reunion with his mother for the first time since he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, the family said Friday.
Myunghee Bae was allowed into North Korea to see her son, Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American Christian missionary, at a hospital where he has been held since August.
Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, of Edmonds, said Friday she had not yet spoken with her mother, but did hear from the Swedish ambassador in Pyongyang, who attended the visit. Photographs of the reunion depicted Bae, wearing vertical stripes of blue and white, embracing his mother and holding her hand.
“He said it was a very emotional meeting, that they had a reunion and that Kenneth did look better from when he was hospitalized on Aug. 9,” Chung said.
Kenneth Bae, a 45-year-old tour operator and Christian missionary, was arrested last November while leading a group of tourists in the northeastern region of Rason. The government accused him of subversive acts.
He was transferred over the summer from a prison camp, where he largely farmed vegetables, to the hospital because he had lost more than 50 pounds. He also suffers from diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain, his family has said.
The ambassador reported that Bae has regained about 15 pounds since being hospitalized, Chung said.
“The rest he’s been given must be helping,” Chung said.
Though comforting, the visit did not necessarily give the family any greater hope that Bae might soon be freed: “We can only hope,” Chung said.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. helped coordinate the visit through the Swedish embassy, which represents U.S. interests in North Korea because the U.S. has no diplomatic ties there.
The State Department has been in close contact with Bae’s family, she said.
“We remain gravely concerned about his health and continue to urge the (North Korean) authorities to grant him special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds,” she said.
Bae is a U.S. citizen but had been living in China for the past seven years.
A report by a Japan-based media outlet affiliated with North Korea, the Choson Sinbo, said Bae and his mother met for 90 minutes. As soon as she entered the room, she hugged Bae and wept.
Bae talked to the ambassador first and then met his mother, the report said. She had been met at the airport Thursday by the Swedish ambassador.
In a video statement before she left, Myunghee Bae, of Lynnwood, said her heart “was broken into pieces” when a prison interview with her son surfaced in July, because he looked so different. Her trip was expected to last five days.
“I want to see him and comfort him and hold him in person,” she said. “I miss him so much.”
Bae is at least the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009. The others eventually were allowed to leave without serving out their terms, some after prominent Americans, including former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, visited North Korea.
Analysts suggest North Korea has used detained Americans as bargaining chips in a standoff with the United States, which long has pressed Pyongyang to abandon a nuclear program estimated to have a handful of crude atomic weapons.
Recent attempts by the U.S. government to free Bae have come up short. In late August, North Korea rescinded its invitation for a senior U.S. envoy to travel to Pyongyang to seek his release.
Bae, a father of three, was born in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. with his parents and sister in 1985. He later moved to China, and a couple of years ago began leading small tour groups, mostly of American and Canadian citizens. He led the groups into a “special economic zone” designed to encourage commerce in Rason.
Several years ago, Bae gave a sermon in which he advocated bringing Americans to North Korea for a mass prayer session to bring about the reunification of North and South Korea.
Associated Press Eric Talmadge in Tokyo and Deb Riechmann in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.