A senior U.S. envoy plans to visit North Korea this week to try to rescue an American detained there, adding to the burgeoning mood for reconciliation with the communist country following months of tension.
Robert King, special envoy for North Korean human rights, is scheduled to arrive in Pyongyang on Friday on a “humanitarian mission focused on securing the release” of Kenneth Bae, the U.S. State Department said.
The Korean-American tour operator was arrested in November in Rason, a special economic zone near the Chinese border, and sentenced in April to 15 years of hard labor for committing “hostile acts” against the North.
“As the U.S. government has on a number of occasions since the April 30 verdict, King will request (North Korea) to pardon Bae and grant him special amnesty on humanitarian grounds so that he can be reunited with his family and seek medical treatment,” the department said in a statement.
King’s two-day stay marks the first trip to the reclusive state by a high-profile U.S. figure in more than two years, and may make way for the resumption of bilateral dialogue, observers say.
The ambassador last traveled there in May 2011 to assess the food situation and returned with a Korean-American named Eddie Jun, who had been locked up for about six months. King, now in Tokyo, is expected to fly on a U.S. Air Force jet.
But the announcement contrasted King’s remarks on Monday in Seoul that he was “not planning (a visit) right now” and “would like to see progress on human rights” in the North before going there.
With Bae assumed to be suffering from failing health, Washington has offered to dispatch the envoy to Pyongyang, diplomatic sources said. They said his release appeared “highly likely.”
The North was seen as using the captive as a bargaining chip for talks as it moves to dial down tension escalated by its missile and nuclear test and warlike threats over U.N. sanctions and South Korea-U.S. military drills.
The Supreme Court verdict carried the country’s toughest-ever penalty for a foreigner, which analysts said points to the regime’s keenness ― or desperation ― to get back to the negotiating table with the U.S.
If King succeeds in having Bae freed, it would mean the removal of one stumbling block to resuming dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington, and possibly help reinvigorate a stalled six-nation denuclearization forum.
Tensions on the peninsula also have eased dramatically in recent weeks. The two Koreas have agreed to reopen the Gaeseong factory zone and plan to hold the first reunions of separated families in three years next month.
Wu Dawei, China’s top nuclear negotiator and special representative for Korean peninsular affairs, is currently in Pyongyang and met on Tuesday with Kim Kye-gwan, a North Korean vice foreign minister responsible for nuclear bargaining.
During a meeting in late June with Yang Jiechi, a Chinese State Councilor in charge of foreign affairs, Kim expressed the regime’s intention to engage in “various dialogues including the six-party talks.”
Still, South Korea and the U.S deem a fresh round of six-party talks as premature yet. They have demanded the North first take preemptive, irreversible steps toward denuclearization before restarting negotiations.
While Seoul would want to maintain the upper hand in squabble-prone cross-border relations, Washington is yet to fully return to willingness for dialogue with Pyongyang, officials say.
In February 2012, the North agreed to a moratorium on its nuclear program, stop atomic and missile tests and let in IAEA inspectors in return for 240,000 tons of U.S. food assistance, only to blow it by firing a long-range rocket in April.
“Washington is cautious about this trip and trying to separate the detainee issue, which is a humanitarian one, from the nuclear issue,” a senior official at Seoul’s Foreign Ministry told The Korea Herald.
“Though Bae’s release could help better the mood for dialogue, it will take far more time for the U.S. to return to the negotiating table with the North, whether it be three-, four- or six-party talks.”
By Shin Hyon-hee (email@example.com