US sending envoy to North Korea to lobby for release of missionary

Kenneth Bae in an undated image from video footage. File / Yonhap via Reuters

The U.S. is sending its special envoy for North Korean human rights issues to Pyongyang to seek the release of U.S. missionary Kenneth Bae, who's serving hard labor for allegedly trying to overthrow the regime of President Kim Jong-un.

In a brief statement Tuesday night, the State Department said it was "deeply concerned" about Bae, who was taken to a hospital this month after he lost more than 50 pounds. Relatives say he suffers from diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain.

The State Department said the human rights envoy, Ambassador Robert King, will add an unscheduled stop Friday as part of a trip he is on in East Asia. A U.N. commission is in the region gathering testimony about alleged human rights abuses in North Korea.

"We urge the government of North Korea to grant special clemency to Mr. Bae immediately and allow him to return home with Ambassador King," the statement said. 

Bae, 45, a Christian missionary and tour operator who has preached the reunification of the Koreas, was arrested in North Korea in November — becoming at least the sixth American to have been detained since 2009.

Bae was sentenced to 15 years' hard labor in May for attempting to topple the government through "state subversion," according to the state-run Central News Agency.

In January, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., traveled to North Korea in an unsuccessful effort to persuade authorities to release Bae.