WASHINGTON (AFP) ― Three U.S. citizens held in North Korea pleaded for their freedom Monday, urging Washington to send an envoy to the isolated authoritarian state to negotiate their release.
As government minders looked on, Kenneth Bae, Jeffrey Fowle and Matthew Miller, who appeared tense, provided new details about their treatment in the autocratic country.
“Continue to pray for me,” Bae, the longest-held detainee, said in a message to family and friends in a highly unusual interview with CNN.
Bae said he was working eight hours a day, six days a week at a labor camp.
He said he had been treated “as humanely as possible” but warned that his health was failing and urged the United States to act swiftly to save him.
“I do ask (the) U.S. government to send an envoy as soon as possible. I think that’s the only hope I have right now,” he said.
Bae was arrested in November 2012 and later sentenced to 15 years of hard labor on charges of seeking to topple the North Korean government.
The three spoke to CNN a hotel in the capital Pyongyang. The U.S. broadcaster said a reporting team already in North Korea on an official tour had been summoned to conduct the unplanned interview.
In Washington, the State Department said it had seen reports regarding their detention and continued to “work actively” to free them.
“Out of humanitarian concern for Jeffrey Fowle, Matthew Miller, and their families, we request the DPRK release them so they may return home,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
“We also request the DPRK pardon Kenneth Bae and grant him special amnesty and immediate release so he may reunite with his family and seek medical care.”
Fowle entered the North on April 29 and was detained after reportedly leaving a Bible at a hotel.
“I’m good for the time being, but I need to let people know that I’m getting desperate, I’m getting desperate for help,” he said.
Fowle suggested former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton or George Bush be dispatched as special envoys, adding he was treated “fairly well,” was able to take a daily walk and had a “hotel suite type of room.”
Miller was arrested in April after he apparently ripped up his visa at immigration and demanded asylum.
North Korea said in July it would put Miller and Fowle on trial on unspecified charges related to “perpetrating hostile acts.”
Miller, too, pleaded for help from Washington.
“My situation is very urgent ... I think this interview is my final chance to push the American government into helping me,” he said, wearing a dark turtleneck and often looking away from the interviewer.
Bae began serving his sentence in May 2013.
When asked about his health problems, he said he has a sleep disorder and severe back pain and that he had been going back and forth from hospital to the labor camp.
“I get numb and tingling and it has been very difficult sleeping at night.
And I was working in the field every day,” he said.
Bae’s family has voiced fear that he is being used as a bargaining chip by North Korea.
His sister Terri Chung said it was evident from the video that her brother, who wore a button-down shirt and sat on a chair during the interview, was under a lot of stress.
“It is really difficult to watch because Kenneth is, you know, kind of full of life and very cheerful kind of a person,” she told CNN.