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North Korea Just Messing With U.S. Over Prisoner’s Release

A North Korean soldier stands guard on the banks of the Yalu River at the North Korean town of Sinuiju across from the Chinese city of Dandong, in northeastern Liaoning province on April 10,2013.
Photo: Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

Last fall, North Korea invited and then disinvited Ambassador Robert King, the United States’s special envoy on North Korean human rights, who was to visit to discuss the release of Kenneth Bae, a U.S. missionary sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor and imprisoned there for more than a year. On Sunday, it pulled the same stunt again, rescinding a second invitation to King. The North, which had said last May that it wouldn’t use Bae as a diplomatic bargaining chip, “appeared to blame the tensions it said were caused by military exercises that the United States and South Korea are scheduled to begin this month,” the New York Times reported. Now Bae’s family has asked Jesse Jackson to try to negotiate his release in Pyongyang, which Jackson says he’ll do.

Bae, meanwhile, has been released from a hospital and sent back to the labor camp where he says he developed serious health problems in the first place. “I know if I continue for the next several months here, I will probably be sent back to the hospital again,” he told a Swedish diplomat on Friday in a videoed conversation released to the pro-North Korean newspaper Choson Sinbo, based in Japan.

But the North’s second snub of King doesn’t necessarily indicate a wholesale refusal to communicate with U.S. representatives. In addition to Jackson’s willingness to visit Pyongyang on a humanitarian mission, the North’s official KCNA news service reported that former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg, now the chairman of the nonprofit Pacific Century Institute, had arrived in Pyongyang.

Bae asked the Swedish diplomat to tell his family, “I have not lost hope and have not given up anything.” But he said he was worried his imprisonment could drag on for months more, as annual joint U.S.—South Korean exercises are slated to begin later this month, something that always leads to Northern saber-rattling.

North Korea Changes Mind Again on Kenneth Bae