The U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights issues plans to visit North Korea as early as this week to try to secure the release of a jailed American, a news report said Friday.
Robert King plans to visit Pyongyang on Monday or later this month at the latest to consult with North Korean officials on the release of Kenneth Bae, according to the Choson Sinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan.
The U.S. government, however, maintained its characteristically cautious approach toward the issue.
Asked about the report at a press briefing, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said she has no new information.
“What I can provide to all of you has not changed, which is that we have long offered to send Ambassador King to North Korea,” she said. “That hasn‘t changed. Our focus here is on securing the release of Kenneth Bae. Because of that, we’re not going to outline every element of communication, every effort that’s underway.”
Bae was arrested in November 2012 while leading a tour group.
He was accused of unspecified anti-state crimes and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, though he had been hospitalized for five months due to illness.
The newspaper said it received the information from Bae in an interview at a prison near Pyongyang. Bae asked the U.S. government to help secure his freedom, according to the newspaper.
Last month, Bae made a similar appeal to the U.S. government during his first meeting with reporters in Pyongyang.
Bae told the newspaper on Friday that he heard about King’s planned trip to Pyongyang from a Swedish diplomat.
The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang serves as a protecting power for Americans in the communist nation. The United States has had no diplomatic relations with North Korea following the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.
U.S. officials were not immediately available for comment.
The report came a week after North Korea’s ambassador to Britain, Hyun Hak-bong, said in a video interview that Bae would be freed when he finishes his prison term.
“When he finishes his term according to the law, there is no reason not to release him,” Hyun said in the interview with Sky News, a 24-hour news channel in Britain.
He also said there are occasions for pardon in the North, though he said he “cannot predict that Kenneth Bae will be pardoned or not,” adding, “He should finish his term. That is all.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Bae’s family in Washington last month.
In August, the North canceled King’s planned visit to Pyongyang in protest of drills by B-52 strategic bombers.
On Wednesday, the North lashed out at the U.S. for flying a B-52 bomber over the peninsula when the two Koreas reached a deal on the reunions of families separated by the Korean War.
The North has been sensitive to B-52 bombers, viewing them as nuclear blackmail and a military threat.
In recent years, several U.S. citizens have been detained in North Korea, but all were released.
In 2009, former U.S. President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to win the release of two American journalists who were caught during a reporting tour covering North Korean defectors near the border with China. (Yonhap)