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The mother of Kenneth Bae, a US citizen jailed in North Korea, has travelled to Pyongyang and was allowed to meet with her son Friday, officials and reports said as the US renewed calls for his release.
Myunghee Bae was on a private trip to North Korea, but a US official said that Washington had helped coordinate the visit with the Swedish embassy, which acts as America's intermediary -- or 'protecting power' -- in the country.
She met her son, who is being held on charges of attempting to topple the regime, at a hospital a day after she arrived in the reclusive communist state, Japan's Kyodo News agency reported.
Bae is said to be suffering serious health problems and to have lost more than 50 pounds (23 kilogrammes) since being jailed.
"We remain gravely concerned about his health and continue to urge the DPRK authorities to grant him special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.
Bae's mother's trip was not arranged by the United States, Harf stressed.
But "we helped her coordinate her trip with the Embassy of Sweden in Pyongyang, which is our protecting power there," Harf added.
Kyodo quoted Bae's mother, known by her Korean name Song Myung-Hee, as saying that despite her son's health woes, she thought he "did not look that bad".
Bae told his mother his health had improved, Kyodo said, adding there may be another meeting between them as she is set to stay in North Korea for five days.
Bae, a 44-year-old tour operator also known by his Korean name Pae Jun-Ho, was arrested in November as he entered the northeastern port city of Rason.
He was sentenced to 15 years hard labour on charges that he was trying to bring down the regime of its young leader, Kim Jong-Un.
Bae was transferred from a prison camp to a hospital in Pyongyang on August 5, said the Chosun Sinbo, a pro-Pyongyang newspaper published in Japan, which normally speaks for the regime in the North.
In a video released before her departure from the US, Bae's mother expressed shock at how ill her son looked during an interview from prison.
"My heart was broken into pieces when his prison interview was released on July 3 because his appearance was very shocking," she said.
"He looked so different and he lost so much weight. I could not believe that prisoner was my son."
North Korea, which strictly bans religious proselytising, has said Bae was a Christian evangelist who had brought in "inflammatory" material.
Bae was sentenced amid heightened military tensions on the Korean peninsula, leading to suggestions Pyongyang hoped to use him as a diplomatic bargaining chip to extract concessions from Washington.
The North has staunchly denied the suggestion, and indicated that it wants policy changes, not diplomacy, from Washington to secure Bae's freedom.
In August, North Korea issued and then rescinded an invitation for US diplomat Robert King to visit Pyongyang for talks on Bae's release.
North Korea has in the past freed detained Americans after visits from high-level emissaries such as former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said there might have been prior discussions between North Korea and the United States over Bae's mother's trip to Pyongyang.
"Despite its denial, Pyongyang is apparently using Bae's case as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from Washington," he said.
In the heat of a crisis over its nuclear programme earlier this year, North Korea carried out its third nuclear test and threatened to strike the United States, but tensions have since eased.
Washington 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.
Releasing Bae, something the United States has been seeking for months, could help foster goodwill between the two nations.