The last surviving members of the U.S. Congress to have served in the Korean War have sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un asking him to release imprisoned American missionary Kenneth 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 mentioned that case in seeking Bae's freedom.
"You have done the right thing by releasing a fellow Korean War veteran, Merrill E. Newman, to return home, you would be making further progress on the humanitarian front by freeing Kenneth Bae to reunite with his family," stated a copy of the letter obtained by Reuters on Wednesday.
The congressmen, Democrat Charles Rangel from New York, Democrat John Conyers Jr. from Michigan, Republican Sam Johnson from Texas and Republican Howard Coble from North Carolina, are members of the House of Representatives.
Bae, 45, has been held for more than a year by North Korea, which convicted him of trying to overthrow the state and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor. Rangel and a congressman from Washington state, where Bae lived, invited his family to attend President Barack Obama's state of the union speech last month.
Bae's sister, Terri Chung, said in an interview she was grateful to the four congressmen for calling attention to her brother's situation.
"When there's more awareness of Kenneth's plight, I think that's always a good thing," she said.
Chung said her family has not spoken to Bae since a December 29 phone call, one of three that North Korea has allowed Bae to have with his family since his detention in November 2012. Bae's mother was permitted to visit him in Pyongyang in October.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said last month that an offer had been made to send U.S. North Korean rights envoy Robert King to Pyongyang to secure Bae's release. King has not been sent to North Korea on that mission, and how North Korea responded to the offer is not clear.
Rangel had previously asked North Korea to free Bae in a letter sent last year that also pleaded for the release of Newman, who was still being detained at the time.
The letter from the four congressmen was dated Tuesday and came as North and South Korea agreed to allow some families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War to hold brief reunions, despite a campaign by Pyongyang demanding that Seoul cancel planned war games with the United States.
In their letter, the congressmen urged Kim Jong-un to extend the reunion effort to Korean-Americans.
"Nothing is more tragic than the separation of families and loved ones," the letter stated. "We encourage you to also create a pathway to allow some 100,000 Korean-Americans to meet with their divided families in the (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) before too many pass away."
At a meeting, officials from North and South Korea agreed that reunions between families from the two countries would take place on February 20 to February 25 in Mount Kumgang, just north of their border, South Korea's Unification Ministry said.
At previous reunions, about 100 families have been allowed to meet relatives on the other side for fleeting moments before being sent back to their respective homes.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Steve Orlofsky)