Mother of jailed U.S. missionary in North Korea to see son

By Eric M. Johnson

SEATTLE (Reuters) - The mother of jailed U.S. missionary Kenneth Bae has arrived in North Korea to visit her ailing son, who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in May on charges of state subversion, his family said on Thursday.

Myunghee Bae was expected to be in North Korea for about five days on a trip in which she hoped to be able to encourage her son, who has diabetes and is poor health, the family said.

"I don't really know what to expect for my trip. All I know is that I want to see my son," Bae's mother said in a statement, in which she expressed gratitude to Pyongyang for allowing the visit.

She arrived at 5:15 p.m. on Thursday, a pro-North Korean newspaper published in Tokyo reported on its web site, accompanied by pictures of her stepping off what appeared to be the North's Air Koryo plane from Beijing.

She was greeted by the Swedish ambassador to Pyongyang, the Choson Sinbo newspaper said. Sweden provides consular services for some countries that do not have diplomatic relations with the North, including the United States.

Bae, 45, was detained last November as he led a tour group through the northern region of the country. His sentencing came amid acrimonious relations between Pyongyang and Washington over the reclusive state's nuclear program.

His plight has attracted international attention. In August, a planned trip by Robert King, U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights issues, to try to negotiate Bae's release, was canceled by North Korea.

King's trip had been seen as a signal that relations between Washington and Pyongyang might start to improve after a tense start to 2013 when North Korea conducted a nuclear weapons test and threatened nuclear attacks against the United States and its ally, South Korea.

On Thursday, a friend of the Bae family, which is based in the Seattle area, said he was hopeful the mother's trip signaled that Bae would soon be allowed to return home.

"I believe that it's a sign that there is some openness to explore the possibility of this family reuniting once again," said the friend, Derek Sciba.

But Bae's sister, Terri Chung, said in a telephone interview she was not getting her hopes up.

"We are trying to keep our expectations low and realistic," Chung said. The main purpose of her mother's trip, she said, "is to just visit him - to hold him, comfort him, encourage him, and be with him in person."

The family has not received any information about whether North Korea was considering releasing her brother, she added.

In sentencing Bae, who has acknowledged being a missionary and has said he conducted religious services in the North, the court said he used his tourism business to form groups aimed at overthrowing the government.

Bae has said he was moved by his faith to preach in the North, considered one of the states most hostile to Christianity.

The family said Bae's health had deteriorated during his detention and that he was hospitalized two months ago and had lost a significant amount of weight.

"He has not been in good health," Chung said. "We don't know what kind of condition he's in."

The family has not heard from Bae since August, although relatives learned two weeks ago that he was in hospital, Chung said.

Bae, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in South Korea who moved to the United States with his family in 1985, has spent much of the last seven years in China, where he started a business leading tour groups into the northern region of North Korea, according to his sister. (Additional reporting by Jack Kim in Seoul; Writing by Cynthia Johnston and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Jackie Frank, Tom Brown and Clarence Fernandez)

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