WASHINGTON A U.S. missionary being held in North Korea was moved from a hospital back to a labor camp last month on the same day he made a public appeal for Washington to help get him home, a U.S. State Department official said on Friday, citing a Swedish diplomat who met with the prisoner.
Kenneth Bae, 45, has been held for more than a year in North Korea after being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for trying to overthrow the state. From last summer until January, he had been kept at Friendship Hospital in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, his family said.
"On January 20 he was moved back to a labor camp, according to a Swedish Embassy representative who met with him," an official of the U.S. State Department told Reuters.
Bae, a Korean American, last appeared in public at Pyongyang Friendship Hospital on January 20 when he was paraded in front of a group of foreign and local reporters and asked Washington to help him get home.
Bae's 23-year-old son, Jonathan, said his father suffered from a number of health problems, including diabetes.
"We're definitely really concerned that he's in there, we need to get him back as quick as possible," he said.
The United States has offered to send its human rights envoy for North Korea, Robert King, to Pyongyang to secure Bae's release, but North Korea has rejected this in the past.
An attempt by King to secure Bae's release last August was rejected by Pyongyang.
Bae's January 20 media appearance was his second since his arrest in 2012 when he led a tour group into the country. North Korea's state KCNA news agency reported Bae himself had asked to hold the news conference.
Bae has acknowledged being a missionary and has said he conducted religious services in the North, one of the most isolated states on earth and long hostile to Westerners advocating religious causes.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama offered prayers for Bae and U.S. prisoners held in other countries during remarks at an annual prayer breakfast that highlighted his Christian faith.
"His family wants him home. And the United States will continue to do everything in our power to secure his release," Obama said.
On Tuesday, the last surviving members of the U.S. Congress to have served in the Korean War sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un asking him to release Bae.
North Korea in December released 85-year-old Korean War veteran Merrill E. Newman, a former U.S. special forces soldier who had been held since October after visiting the country as a tourist, and the members of Congress applauded that in the letter seeking Bae's freedom.
The letter, signed by Democratic Representative Charles Rangel from New York, Democratic Representative John Conyers Jr. from Michigan, Republican Representative Sam Johnson from Texas and Republican Representative Howard Coble from North Carolina, is not seen as having nearly as much influence on the North Korean leaders as a possible visit from a U.S. envoy.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Alex Dubozinskis; Editing by Eric Beech)