WASHINGTON – North Korea has rescinded its invitation for a senior U.S. envoy to travel to Pyongyang to seek the release of a detained American, the State Department said Friday, abruptly dimming hopes for improved relations already strained by the North’s nuclear program.
Bob King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights, was due to travel Friday from Tokyo to Pyongyang to request a pardon and amnesty for Kenneth Bae and return the next day.
Bae, a 45-year-old tour operator and Christian missionary from Lynnwood, Wash., was sentenced in April to 15 years of hard labor by the authoritarian state, which accused him of subversion. He was recently hospitalized.
Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. was “surprised and disappointed by North Korea’s decision” and remains gravely concerned about Bae’s health.
U.S. officials said they were puzzled by the North Korean move, as the two sides had been coordinating closely to facilitate King’s trip. It would have been the first public trip to North Korea by an Obama administration official in more than two years.
King intends to return to Washington from Tokyo today.
Bae’s family expressed disappointment but said they were holding on to faith that North Korean and U.S. diplomats would resume talks soon.
The North Korean diplomatic mission at the United Nations in New York declined to comment Friday.
In a sign that all was not well, North Korea abruptly took a stronger tone Thursday in its criticism of U.S.-South Korean military drills that began Aug. 19 and concluded Friday.
Pyongyang had initially responded to those computer-simulated drills with milder-than-usual language, which was seen as a sign of its interest in keeping up diplomacy. The regime of leader Kim Jong Un has also moved in recent weeks to improve relations with South Korea, a staunch U.S. ally.
Bae is at least the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009. The others were eventually allowed to leave without serving their terms, with some releases coming after prominent Americans, including former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, visited North Korea.
Bae was arrested last November and accused of committing “hostile acts” against North Korea. He suffers from multiple health problems.