Kenneth Bae (second from right). File picture: TIME
American officials confirmed this week that North Korean authorities sent Kenneth Bae back to a labor camp in late July to continue serving his 15-year sentence, after he was discharged from the Pyongyang Friendship Hospital.
The American missionary has been in Pyongyang’s custody for two years, after he was found guilty of committing “hostile acts” while leading a tour in the city of Rason. The U.S. State Department has repeated its demand that the physically ailing Bae be released immediately.
“We remain gravely concerned about Bae’s health, and we continue to urge [North Korean] authorities to grant Bae special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds,” read an email by State Department officials that was sent to the Voice of America’s Korean news service.
Swedish officials, who act as diplomatic interlocutors for the U.S. in North Korea, visited the American earlier this week at the unspecified camp — the 12th such meeting between Bae and Sweden’s diplomatic corps since he was arrested. Representatives from the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang were unable to comment on the matter when contacted by TIME on Thursday.
Human rights groups slammed the North Korean leadership for continuing to use harsh methods to punish the American.
“Bae, like millions of North Koreans before him, faces injury or death by a regime that systematically employs forced labor to punish anyone that it accuses of undermining the government,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, tells TIME.
Bae’s arrest appears to be part of a wider campaign aimed at curtailing any form of proselytizing in North Korea, where officials view the act as a challenge to the ruling Kim dynasty.
Earlier this summer, two American tourists were imprisoned for allegedly performing acts that undermined the state. One of the men, Jeffrey Fowle, is suspected of leaving behind a Bible at a nightclub in Chongjin, according to the Associated Press.
In May, retired NBA star Dennis Rodman, who is the only American to have met Kim Jong Un, tapped the nation’s “Supreme Leader” to release Bae as a personal favor.
“I’m calling on the Supreme Leader of North Korea or as I call him ‘Kim,’ to do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose,” tweeted Rodman.
Kim has yet to be moved, it appears.