Family of US missionary in North Korea prison 'terribly worried' over his health

Terri Chung, sister of Kenneth Bae, looks on during a vigil for Bae in Seattle, Washington, Saturday. REUTERS / Matt Mills McKnight

Relatives of an American man serving a 15-year sentence in North Korea are becoming increasingly concerned about his health after he lost more than 50 pounds and was taken to a hospital.

Christian missionary and tour operator Kenneth Bae, 45, was ordered to carry out hard labor when he was sentenced in May after being convicted of “committing hostile acts” against the North Korean state.

His sister Terri Chung, of Edmonds, near Seattle, told NBC station King 5 on Sunday that a Swedish diplomat had visited her brother who was in a hospital. Sweden represents American interests in North Korea because the U.S. has no official diplomatic relations with the country.

“We’re terribly worried about his health,” she added. “I think it has been deteriorating.”

However she said that she “firmly” believed he would come home -- “and not in 15 years.”

“I hold onto faith in my God and in my government,” Chung said.

 “We’re hoping what little noise we’re making in this corner of Seattle will spread,” she said. “In the end, it’s not up to us. We feel completely hopeless.”

About 100 people held a vigil for Bae at Quest Church in Seattle Saturday and an online petition at had more than 10,000 signatures early Monday morning.

In letters to his family, Bae previously described working in the fields weeding and planting beans and potatoes, according to The Associated Press.

U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae, seen here in his file photo. REUTERS / Yonhap

Bae suffers from diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain, she told the wire service.

"He's considerably weaker," Chung said. "There's more urgency than ever to bring him home."

Chang Yong Seok, a North Korea expert at Seoul National University, told the AP that North Korea wanted to use Bae's imprisonment and health problems as a way to get a visit from a senior U.S. envoy in the hopes of eventually restarting talks with a reluctant Washington.

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 government of young North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who took power in late 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, may also be using Bae's alleged missionary work in the North to shore up domestic support by highlighting a perceived outside threat to the country.

"This provides a good narrative for the North to show its people that the regime's very existence is still under threat" from the United States, Chang told the AP.

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 seven years before his arrest he lived 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 Rason 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 U.S. State Department has called for his release on humanitarian grounds.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.