An American Christian being held captive in North Korea said in interviews with CNN and the Associated Press that his health is failing and asked the U.S. government to help secure his release.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement calling on Iran to release pastor Saeed Abedini, another American Christian held prisoner for nearly two years.
Kenneth Bae, a U.S. citizen who was arrested in 2012 as he led a tour group in one of North Korea’s special economic zones for foreign investors, was one of three detained Americans in North Korea permitted to speak with U.S. media Monday (Sept. 1). The other two were Jeffrey Edward Fowle, who was arrested after he left a Bible in a hotel, and Matthew Todd Miller, who shredded his tourist visa upon arriving in North Korea and demanded asylum.
Bae was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “hostile acts to bring down” the North Korean government. He told CNN Monday that he needs prayer.
“Right now what I can say to my family and friends is continue to pray for me and also ask them to continue an effort in getting me released here,” Bae, 46, said.
Bae said his health is failing, including diabetes, backaches and high blood pressure, which have plagued him for years. Amid health concerns he is working eight hours a day, six days a week at a labor camp and living largely in isolation.
“I’m the only prisoner in the camp,” Bae said. “I’ve been the only prisoner in the camp for the last year and a half. I didn’t have anybody else in the camp other than the guard. And there’s one doctor stationed in there as well.”
Bae said he is being treated humanely and has been going back and forth between the labor camp and a hospital for more than a year. But North Korean officials were present during his interviews, leading some to speculate that Bae was coached regarding his answers.
When asked whether he knew he was violating the law at the time of his alleged crimes, he replied, “I did have some assumptions, but I did not quite agree with the charges until I got here.” Earlier in the interview Bae said he believes he is guilty of the crimes for which he has been sentenced.
Bae’s sister Terri Chung said in an email statement to news organizations that his back appeared to be in pain during the CNN interview and that his normal cheerful, “larger than life” personality was gone.
Chung said to North Korea, “Please have mercy. It is in your power to release my brother.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said according to CNN, “There is no greater priority for us than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad.” She asked North Korea to “pardon Kenneth Bae and grant him special amnesty and immediate release so he may reunite with his family and seek medical care.”
Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement asked Iran to release pastor Abedini and two other Americans held prisoner there — Amir Hekmati, accused of espionage, and Jason Rezaian, a reporter for the Washington Post. Kerry also asked Iran to “work cooperatively with us” to find Robert Levinson, an American who went missing in 2007 on Kish Island.
“The United States remains committed to returning all of them to their families, friends, and loved ones,” Kerry said of the detained and missing Americans in an Aug. 29 statement. “We ask the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to immediately release Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, and Jason Rezaian and respectfully request the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran work cooperatively with us to find Mr. Levinson and bring him home.”
Kerry said of Abedini, “On September 26, Mr. Abedini will have been detained for two years in Iran, on charges related to his religious beliefs. Mrs. Abedini has spoken eloquently about the difficulties her family has faced during this challenging time.”
Abedini, a U.S. citizen of Iranian descent, was sentenced in early 2013 to eight years in prison for his involvement in Iran’s house church movement. Abedini used to live in Iran and was a leader of house churches before moving to America in 2005. He was arrested while on a trip to build an orphanage in the city of Rasht. Though the Iranian constitution officially recognizes Christianity as a minority religion, Christian converts from Islam have suffered brutal persecution at the hands of Muslim authorities.
Abedini’s wife Naghmeh and the couple’s two young children live in Idaho. They have not been allowed to speak with Abedini since he was arrested but have communicated through his family in Iran, who are permitted to visit him in prison.
Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, said in a blog post that the tone of Kerry’s statement is “a welcomed acknowledgement of the severe difficulty faced by Pastor Saeed’s family. Pastor Saeed — a 34-year-old U.S. citizen — has done nothing wrong; he is imprisoned merely because of his religious beliefs.”
Sekulow added that he is “thankful for the Obama Administration’s renewed focus on Pastor Saeed’s plight. We continue urging the Administration to do all within its power to bring him safely home to his family.”
Two days prior to Kerry’s statement, Naghmeh Abedini wrote on the True Woman blog that God has used her husband’s captivity to teach her how to die to self and walk in the Spirit, as Scripture commands.
“Before Saeed was thrown into one of the world’s worst prisons, I struggled with fear and anxiety. More than anything, I was afraid of flying and speaking in front of people. It was when one of my worst fears happened, and I found myself a single mom with a husband in prison being tortured for his Christian faith, that I reached the ultimate low. It was in that moment that I realized how very weak I was. I could lose everything in an instant, and no one in the world could help me,” Naghmeh Abedini wrote.
“My mother was kneeling in front of me, crying and begging me to tell her what she could do to help. I realized that there was nothing she or anyone could do. Only the One who made me could reach down into the depths of my soul and fix me. I cried out to Jesus, ‘Help me! I can’t fall now! My kids need me. My husband needs me. Please heal me! I will let go of my life and let You lead me.’ The peace of God that surpasses all understanding covered my whole being, and I was freed of all fear. I no longer feared death of loved ones. I no longer feared the loss of finances or health. I no longer feared the future. I was truly free in Jesus,” she wrote.
Since Saeed Abedini’s arrest, Naghmeh Abedini has testified before Congress on her husband’s behalf, spoken at the United Nations and asked European nations to press for his release as a condition of trade agreements with Iran.