Activists to light candles, pray for American jailed in North Korea
SEATTLE, Washington (Reuters) - Family and friends seeking the release of an American Christian missionary imprisoned in North Korea will hold at least two prayer vigils on Saturday, seeking to raise his global profile and spur clemency pleas, his sister said.
Kenneth Bae was sentenced in May to 15 years of hard labor after North Korea's Supreme Court convicted him of state subversion. It said the 45-year-old had used his tourism business to form groups to overthrow the government.
Bae was detained in November as he led a tour group through the northern region of the country. His sentencing came amid acrimonious relations between Pyongyang and Washington over the reclusive state's nuclear program.
Members of Bae's family and the broader community will light candles and pray for Bae at a Seattle church on Saturday evening and will read from a letter he sent home from prison, his sister, Terri Chung, said.
"This is the time. We must appeal to our legislative leaders to act and seek amnesty for Kenneth," Chung said.
Two American journalists arrested in 2009 by North Korea and held until former President Bill Clinton traveled there to negotiate their release are organizing a satellite vigil in New York, one of the journalists, Euna Lee said.
Bae spends eight hours a day, six days a week planting and plowing fields of potatoes and beans among other work at a prison for foreigners near Pyongyang where he is kept largely isolated, Chung said, adding that his health was deteriorating.
North Korea has in the past used the release of high-profile American prisoners as a means of garnering a form of prestige or acceptance by portraying visiting dignitaries as paying homage to the country and its leader.
That pattern has complicated the response of U.S. lawmakers and the State Department, which has called for Bae's immediate release on "humanitarian grounds," but resisted sending high-profile envoys to negotiate, as it has done in the past.
An Internet petition started by Bae's son urging U.S. President Barack Obama to secure a "Special Amnesty" for Bae has garnered nearly 8,000 signatures.
There have been other calls for his release, such as a Twitter message from former basketball player Dennis Rodman, who visited North Korea in February, but Chung said U.S. officials have assured her they are pursuing quieter clemency efforts.
Reports last month that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was set to visit North Korea to negotiate for Bae were ultimately denied as false.
Bae, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in South Korea who moved to the United States with his family in 1985, has spent much of the last seven years in China, where he started a business leading tour groups into the northern region of North Korea, Chung said.
Chung said she hopes to learn more about the nature of those visits. Human rights activists in South Korea say Bae may have been arrested for taking pictures of starving children.
"I believe his personal convictions as a Christian might not have been interpreted kindly," Chung told Reuters in a recent interview.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and David Brunnstrom)
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