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N. Korea cancels invite to US envoy seeking prisoner release

Passersby watch a television broadcast in Seoul on May 2, 2013 about US citizen Kenneth Bae
Passersby watch a television broadcast in Seoul on May 2, 2013 about US citizen Kenneth Bae, who has been jailed for 15 years in North Korea. North Korea has cancelled its invitation to a US envoy who was to have sought the release of Bae, the State Depar

North Korea has cancelled its invitation to a US envoy who was to have sought the release of an American citizen it holds prisoner, the State Department said Friday.

News of the planned trip by US diplomat Robert King had raised hopes that Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old American who has been prisoner in North Korea since November, might be released.

King had been due to fly to Pyongyang on Friday, but State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the visit had been cancelled after North Korea rescinded its invitation.

"We are surprised and disappointed by North Korea's decision," she said.

Harf said Washington had asked North Korea to explain its actions and that the US side would push for a new date, but that King was planning to fly back from Tokyo on Saturday.

"We remain gravely concerned about Mr. Bae's health and we continue to urge the DPRK authorities to grant Mr Bae special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds," she said, referring to North Korea by its official initials.

Bae, a Korean-American tour operator whose Korean name is Pae Jun-Ho, was arrested in November 2012 as he entered the hardline communist state's northeastern port city of Rason.

North Korea, which strictly bans religious proselytizing, said Bae was a Christian evangelist who brought in "inflammatory" material.

He was sentenced to 15 years hard labor on charges that he was trying to topple the regime of young leader Kim Jong-Un.

His family and US officials say he is now very sick, and have called for his release as a humanitarian gesture.

Bae was tried at a time of high tension between the United States and North Korea over the reclusive nation's nuclear program,

The North has staunchly denied that the hefty jail sentence was crafted as a diplomatic bargaining chip, and indicated that it wanted policy changes, not diplomacy, from Washington to secure Bae's freedom.

Bae's sister Terri Chung said earlier this month that her brother has lost more than 50 pounds (23 kilograms) and has problems with his kidneys and liver.

In July, Bae said in an interview with the Chosun Sinbo newspaper that he had been leading a difficult life in prison because he was suffering from diabetes, a fatty liver, hardening of the arteries and a pain in the waist.

North Korea has in the past freed detained Americans after visits from high-level emissaries such as former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

In the heat of the crisis over the communist state's weapons earlier this year, North Korea carried out its third nuclear test and threatened to strike the United States, but tensions have since eased.

America has been cool to North Korean overtures to restart talks, saying it is only interested in sitting down if Pyongyang commits to giving up its atomic weapons.

But releasing Bae, something the United States has been seeking for months, could help foster goodwill between the rival nations.

King has been in Asia since August 19, for a 10-day trip in which he was scheduled to discuss human rights in North Korea with officials in China, South Korea and Japan as well as North Koreans resettled in the South.

The United States and advocacy groups say that North Korea has perhaps the world's worst human rights record, with no dissent tolerated and severe repercussions for citizens who try to emigrate.

King was involved in an agreement on February 29, 2012, in which the United States said it would provide food assistance to North Korea, which has reported malnutrition.

But the United States suspended the agreement after North Korea, by then under the leadership of the young leader Kim, launched a rocket in April 2012.

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