SEOUL, South Korea – Jan. 20, 2014 -- Kenneth Bae, the American missionary jailed in North Korea, appealed to U.S. authorities to do more to secure his release, adding that he hopes to be a “connecting bridge for the friendship” between North Korea and the western world.
Bae made the comments at what he called a press conference held at his own request. He was under guard during the appearance. It is not unusual for prisoners in North Korea to say after their release that they spoke in similar situations under duress.
Wearing a gray cap and inmate's uniform with the number 103 on his chest, Bae spoke in Korean during the brief appearance, which was attended by The Associated Press and a few other foreign media in Pyongyang.
"I believe that my problem can be solved by close cooperation and agreement between the American government and the government of this country," he said.
Bae also made a point to tell the reporters that he is not detained in Pyongyang without a reason and indeed he had committed a “serious crime.”
“Not only did the government not abuse my human rights, but rather provided numerous humanitarian support,” he said, according to Xinhua, a Chinese state-run news agency with presence in Pyongyang. Bae said he is in good health and has been in the hospital for the last five months receiving treatment on humanitarian basis.
Bae was arrested in November 2012 while leading a tour group and accused of crimes against the state before being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. He was moved to a hospital last summer in poor health.
“I am very sorry that I could not be with my family. Today is my mother’s birthday and tomorrow is my daughter’s birthday,” Bae said. “I am deeply aware of my crimes, but I hope to have an opportunity to become a bridge to connect the friendship between North Korea and the western world.”
Bae is the longest-serving American detainee in North Korea in recent years.
A sticking point with Bae might be that the U.S. government has said he is not guilty of any crimes. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said last month that Bae is being held without reason, which Pyongyang denies. Bae on Monday made an apology and said he had committed anti-government acts. He said recent comments in the media from the U.S. side — likely alluding to Biden's remarks — have made his situation more complicated.
His appearance came weeks after North Korea freed an elderly American veteran of the Korean War who had been held for weeks for alleged crimes during the 1950-53 war.
State media said 85-year-old Merrill Newman was released because he apologized for his wrongdoing and that authorities also considered his age and medical condition. Newman said after his release that a videotaped confession was given involuntarily and under duress, although he was generally treated well.
North Korea has detained at least seven Americans since 2009. They were eventually deported or released without serving out their terms, some after prominent Americans such as former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter traveled to Pyongyang.
A senior U.S. envoy had planned to visit North Korea in late August to discuss Bae's release, but Pyongyang withdrew its invitation at the last minute, accusing the United States of hostility. Analysts said North Korea was apparently trying to gain leverage in a long-running international standoff over its nuclear weapons program.
"We shouldn't take Kenneth Bae's comments merely as his own," said Kim Jin Moo, a North Korea expert at the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. "The reason why North Korea had Kenneth Bae make this statement ... is that they want Washington to reach out to them."
"Bae's comments are an appeal to Washington to actively persuade Pyongyang to release him," Kim said.
Other foreign analysts say North Korea wants better ties with Seoul and Washington as a way to win foreign aid and investment to boost its struggling economy.
Earlier this month, Bae's detention was in the news after former basketball star Dennis Rodman traveled to Pyongyang with other retired NBA players for an exhibition game marking the birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In an interview with CNN while in Pyongyang, Rodman made comments implying Bae was at fault.
Rodman, who has been criticized for not using his ties with Kim to help secure Bae's freedom, later apologized.
Bae was born in South Korea and immigrated to the United States in 1985 with his parents and sister. He was allowed to call home on Dec. 29, according to his sister, Terri Chung. That was the first time his three children from an earlier marriage had spoken to him, she said. He has two children in Arizona and another in Hawaii, ages 17, 22 and 23, Chung said.
Before his arrest, Bae lived in China for seven years with his wife and stepdaughter. He ran a tour business and led 18 trips to North Korea, Chung said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.