The American citizen sentenced to 15 years in a North Korean labor camp, has appealed to the Korean authorities for forgiveness and asked the United States for help in securing his release in an exclusive interview from prison obtained Wednesday by CNN.
Pae Jun Ho, known as Kenneth Bae by U.S. authorities, was found guilty in an April 30 trial of “hostile acts to bring down its government” and planning anti-North Korea religious activities, according to the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
In the interview footage, his head was shaved and his face noticeably thinner than the previous photos of the Korean-American. Bae wore a blue prison garment streaked with sweat and dirt that bore the number 103. The interview is believed to be the first since Bae’s sentencing about two months ago.
Choson Sinbo, a pro-North Korean group based in Tokyo, was permitted to conduct the interview by North Korea. The edited footage, which runs less than eight minutes, was made available to CNN.
The timing of the Bae interview comes after North Korea proposed high-level talks with the United States last month. However, North Korea has stated before that Bae is not a “political bargaining chip” through KCNA.
“There is no greater priority for us than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad and we urge the DPRK authorities to grant Mr. Bae amnesty and immediate release,” said Brent Byers, spokesperson at the U.S. Embassy in South Korea. He added that the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which represents U.S. interests there, has met with Bae six times since his arrest.
In the interview, Bae sat in a room next to a door and a radiator. He calmly described his current prison life as eight hours of farm labor — which he had never done before — with a break in the middle of the day and lunch. He was also filmed clearing the fields, wearing black gloves and a hat as a guard stood watch nearby.
When asked if prison life was bearable, Bae replied, “Yes, people here are very considerate. But my health is not in the best condition, so there are some difficulties. But, everyone here is considerate and generous, and we have doctors here, so I’m getting regular check-ups.”
North Korean media has detailed the reasons why Bae was sentenced. Among the list of alleged crimes was 1) setting up bases in China for the “purpose of toppling the DPRK government,” 2) encouraging DPRK citizens to bring down its government and 3) conducting a “malignant smear campaign.” KCNA added that Bae had planned what it called a “Jericho operation” to bring down North Korea through religious activities. It suggested that Bae could have been sentenced to death, but avoided it through “candid confession of his crimes.”