By Doug Esser Associated Press
EDMONDS — The sister of a Lynnwood man detained for more than a year in North Korea echoed her brother’s apology to the nation for crimes he committed and his plea to the U.S. government to ramp up efforts to secure his release.
In a statement released Monday after Kenneth Bae gave a brief news conference in North Korea, Terri Chung of Edmonds said, “We understand that Kenneth has been convicted of crimes under DPRK laws. Our family sincerely apologizes on Kenneth’s behalf.”
Chung’s statement was a change in tone from previous times she’s spoken of her brother in which she said he did nothing wrong and was legally working in North Korea as a tour operator.
Kim Jin Moo, a North Korea expert at the South Korean state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, said Bae’s apology should be viewed in the context of the complex relationship between North Korea and the United States.
“We shouldn’t take Kenneth Bae’s comments merely as his own,” Jin Moo said. “The reason why North Korea had Kenneth Bae make this statement … is that they want Washington to reach out to them.”
Chung said to North Korea’s leaders: “We humbly ask for your mercy to release my brother.” The family is concerned about Bae’s health, and Chung said she could “see that he was distressed.”
Bae was accused of subversive activities against the authoritarian government. 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.
At the press conference Monday, Bae apologized and said he committed anti-government acts. He wore a gray cap and inmate’s uniform with the number 103 on his chest and was under guard during the appearance. It is not unusual for prisoners in North Korea to say after their release that they spoke in similar situations under duress.
Bae pointed to a comment by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden last month as having made his situation more difficult
“The vice president of United States said that I was detained here without any reason,” Bae said. “And even my younger sister recently told the press that I had not committed any crime and I know that the media reported it.
“I think these comments infuriated the people here enormously. And for this reason, I am in a difficult situation now. As a result, although I was in medical treatment in the hospital for five months until now, it seems I should return to prison. And moreover there is greater difficulty in discussions about my amnesty.”
Bae was arrested in November 2012 while leading a tour group and accused of crimes against the state before being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. He was moved to a hospital last summer in poor health.
Bae spoke in Korean during the brief appearance, which was attended by The Associated Press and several other members of the foreign media in Pyongyang.
Bae, the longest-serving American detainee in North Korea in recent years, expressed hope that the U.S. government will do its best to win his release. He said he had not been treated badly in confinement.
In her statement, Chung thanked U.S. leaders for their efforts so far, but called for an increased push to secure her brother’s release.
In Washington, D.C., State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. government was continuing to work with the Swedish Embassy on getting Bae freed.
An Obama administration official speaking on background said the U.S. government has offered to send Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues Robert King to Pyongyang to secure Bae’s release and was awaiting North Korea’s response.
On Tuesday, Chung said the family appreciates all the work the U.S. government has been doing.
“We ask for ongoing advocacy to bring him home now,” she said. “He says he’s being treated well. We believe that.”
Bae’s appearance came weeks after North Korea freed an elderly American veteran of the Korean War who had been held for weeks for alleged crimes during the 1950-53 conflict.
State media said 85-year-old Merrill Newman was released because he apologized for his wrongdoing and that authorities also considered his age and medical condition. Newman said after his release that a videotaped confession was made under duress.
North Korea has detained at least seven Americans since 2009.
Bae was born in South Korea and immigrated to the United States in 1985 with his parents and sister. He was allowed to call home on Dec. 29 because of the holidays, according to his sister. That was the first time his three children had spoken to him, she said. He has two children from an earlier marriage in Arizona and a stepdaughter who is temporarily in Hawaii. Their ages are 17, 22 and 23, Chung said.
Chung said Monday that it was difficult seeing him in his prison uniform, number 103.
“My brother is not a number to me, or to the rest of his family,” she said.
Associated Press Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.