In a surprising move, The Associated Press and CNN have been granted interviews with Kenneth Bae, an American being held prisoner in North Korea for "hostile acts to bring down its government." On Monday the news outlets spoke with Bae and two other American detainees at a hotel in Pyongyang. It was the first time that the three detainees spoke from the same location, and I have a feeling that it wasn't a case of the extremely regimented country feeling particularly generous.
Bae is serving a 15-year sentence in a labor camp, where he works eight hours a day, six days a week. He told CNN in the five-minute interview that he believes that he is guilty of the crimes that he is charged with, including proselytizing and organizing an "anti-state" Christian movement designed to overthrow the government. For his family, Bae had a message:
I'm sure they're very worried about my health at this time. Even though, right now, the last month and a half... it's been failing. What I can say to my family and friends is to continue to pray for me and also ask them to continue an effort in getting me released here.
Bae has suffered health issues since he was arrested in November 2012. In an emailed statement to news organizations, Bae's sister Terri Chung noted that her brother's appearance in the interview “does exacerbate our concerns. He has lost quite a bit of weight."
Bae also asked that the American government send an envoy to secure his release. "I think that's the only hope that I have right now in order for me to go home and be reunited with my family."
The plea for U.S. intervention echoes an August 2013 interview Bae did from a North Korean hospital, where he was admitted for health issues he suffered during his time at the labor camp.
Two other American prisoners, Jeffrey Fowle and Matthew Miller, were also allowed five minutes with the news outlets. Fowle was detained last May for allegedly leaving a Bible in the hotel room he was staying in while on vacation (seriously, y'all, they are super hard-nosed on this proselytizing thing). Miller was held in April when he allegedly tore his tourist visa and asked for asylum.
The common thread between the three prisoners was the appeal for high-ranking U.S. officials to come and bargain for their release. North Korea is using the Americans as leverage for talks with the U.S. Former UN ambassador Bill Richardson told USA Today that it is an orchestrated power grab.
"The North Koreans want to come back on the world stage — that it's not just ISIS and Ukraine and the Middle East, that they're an entity to be dealt with," Richardson said.