WASHINGTON - The United States is sending a senior envoy to North Korea to seek the release of an ailing Korean-American sentenced to 15 years hard labour, the State Department said Tuesday.
Kenneth Bae was tried at a time of high tension between the United States and North Korea over the reclusive nation's nuclear programme, on charges that he was trying to topple the regime of young leader Kim Jong-Un.
Despite earlier US goodwill trips that led to convictions being overturned, the North has staunchly denied that the hefty jail sentence was crafted as a diplomatic bargaining chip, and indicated that it wanted policy changes, not diplomacy, from Washington to secure Bae's freedom.
Pyongyang also said it would not invite any leading American to discuss the release of Bae, who is 44, but Ambassador Robert King's August 30 visit appears to be a reversal of that strategy.
A State Department statement said King, the US Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, would travel to Pyongyang "at the invitation of the DPRK government" on a humanitarian mission "focused on securing the release of US citizen Kenneth Bae."
Bae, a tour operator whose Korean name is Pae Jun-Ho, was arrested in November 2012 as he entered the hardline communist state's northeastern port city of Rason.
North Korea, which strictly bans religious proselytizing, said Bae was a Christian evangelist who brought in "inflammatory" material.
The State Department and Bae's sister have said the Korean-American, whose sentence included long days of farm work, was recently transferred to a hospital due to deteriorating health.