SEATTLE — An American man detained in North Korea for the past nine months has been hospitalized after losing more than 50 pounds, and the need to bring him home is becoming more urgent, his sister said Sunday.
Kenneth Bae, a 45-year-old tour operator and Christian missionary, was arrested last November and accused of subversive activities against the government. He was sentenced in May to 15 years hard labor, and in letters to his family in the Seattle area he described working in the fields weeding and planting beans and potatoes.
His sister, Terri Chung, of Edmonds, said Sunday the family recently learned that he has been transferred from the labor camp to a hospital. Her brother suffers from diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain, she said.
"He's considerably weaker," Chung said. "There's more urgency than ever to bring him home."
A deputy ambassador from Sweden met with Bae at the hospital Friday, Chung said. Sweden represents American interests in North Korea because the U.S. has no official diplomatic relations with the country.
Bae, a father of three, was born in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. with his parents and sister in 1985. For the past seven years he has been living in China, and a couple of years ago began leading small tour groups, mostly of American and Canadian citizens, into a "special economic zone" designed to encourage commerce in the northeastern region of Roson in North Korea, Chung said.
Several years ago, Bae gave a sermon in which he advocated bringing Americans to North Korea for a mass prayer session to bring about the reunification of North and South Korea. The charges against him included "hostile acts" against the government.
Bae is at least the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009. The others were eventually allowed to leave without serving out their terms, some after prominent Americans, including former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, visited North Korea.
The State Department has called for his release on humanitarian grounds.
Bae's recent letters to his family urged them to take a more prominent role in advocating his release, and on Saturday night they held a prayer vigil at a Seattle church to publicize his case. About 180 people attended, said Chung, who teaches English composition at a Seattle community college.
Bae's son has started an online petition calling for his freedom.
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