By BosNewsLife Asia Service
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA (BosNewsLife)– An American Christian missionary has been returned to a harsh labor camp in North Korea, despite international concern about his health.
The 45-year-old Kenneth Bae, a U.S. citizen detained for 15 months, was transferred from a hospital to the camp on January 20, a State Department spokesperson said in comments monitored by BosNewsLife Saturday, February 9.
Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington is “gravely concerned about his health” and added that Swedish embassy officials had visited Bae in the camp on Friday, February 7.
Psaki urged Pyongyang to grant Bae special amnesty and his immediate release on humanitarian grounds.
Earlier, U.S. President Barack Obama called for the release of Kenneth Bae and American pastor Saeed Abedini, detained in Iran, during Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, saying the United States continues to pray for “all prisoners of conscience” regardless of faith.
“We pray for Kenneth Bae, a Christian missionary who’s been held in North Korea for 15 months, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor,” Obama said.
“His family wants him home. And the United States will continue to do everything in our power to secure his release because Kenneth Bae deserves to be free.”
Since his detention in late 2012, the Christian reportedly lost 50 pounds. He was moved last summer to a hospital from a prison work camp where he had been farming vegetables.
News of Bae’s transfer came while a pro-Pyongyang newspaper based in Japan, Choson Sinbo, said a U.S. envoy, Robert King, was expected to visit Bae as soon as Monday, February 10.
The State Department says it has a longstanding offer to send Ambassador King to North Korea in support of Bae’s release, the Voice of America (VOA) network reported.
Bae was born in South Korea and immigrated to the United States with his parents and sister in 1985.
He had been living in China as a Christian missionary for about seven years before his arrest.
Within the last few years, he began leading small tour groups, mostly of American and Canadian citizens, into a “special economic zone” designed to encourage commerce in northeastern North Korea.
While Bae has been the focus of attention, thousands of other Christians are known to be in what Christian rights groups have called “concentration camps”, include eight punishment camps for political prisoners and 30 forced labor camps.
Many of them are persecuted for their faith in Christ and refusing to show “total devotion” of the individual to an ideology promoted by the late leader Kim Il Sung, rights groups say.
Christianity is seen as a threat in the isolated, Communist Asian nation, several Christian and other observers have said.
North Korean authorities have denied wrongdoing and say the North Korean people love to serve the country’s “dear leader”.
Desp0te the dangers at least 200,000 North Koreans are devoted Christians, with some estimates as high as half a million, according to Open Doors, a group supporting persecuted believers.
One in four Christians in North Korea are believed to be in camps where many do not survive, Christians said.
Officials are also under pressure to obey.
Last week Polish media, citing Japanese sources, said the aunt of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un fled to Poland after the execution of her husband.
Kim Kyong-hui, sister of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, has not been sighted in public this year, following the execution of her husband Jang Sung-taek on 13 December for “counter-revolutionary” activity.
Yomiuri Shimbun reportedly travelled first to Switzerland and then on to Poland, where her half-brother, Kim Pyong-il, has served as ambassador since 1998.
North Korea’s ambassador to Britain defended Jang Sung-taek’s execution saying he was guilty of “tremendous crimes” against the state. Jang was a top policy adviser to late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and analysts have suggested that the new leader felt threatened by the veteran politician.
Jang and his wife had a daughter who had studied in Paris, but she apparently committed suicide in 2006 after being ordered to return to North Korea, Polish media said. (With reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos).
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is ‘Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals’ since 2004).
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