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By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON — A ranking US government official will visit North Korea later this week in an effort to secure the release of a Korean-American man held there, the State Department announced Tuesday.
Ambassador Robert King, the US special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, will travel to Pyongyang on Friday at the invitation of the North Korean government, it said in a press release.
The move comes amid signs of improving ties between South and North Korea, which have agreed to resume the operation of a joint industrial park in Kaesong and allow a brief reunion of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
The Obama administration, however, emphasized that King's mandate will be limited to the issue of freeing Kenneth Bae, who has been held in the communist nation since November.
King will make a trip to North Korea "on a humanitarian mission focused on securing the release of US citizen Kenneth Bae," the department added.
Bae, 44, was arrested in North Korea in November after entering the nation with a group of tourists. Some reports say he was serving as a tour operator, while others say he worked as a Christian missionary.
He was convicted in April of unspecified hostile acts against the North Korean regime.
"As the US government has on a number of occasions since the April 30 verdict, Ambassador King will request the DPRK (North Korea) pardon Mr. Bae and grant him special amnesty on humanitarian grounds so that he can be reunited with his family and seek medical treatment," the department said.
It did not provide other details, including whom King will meet and how long he will stay in the North.
A diplomatic source here said the US seems to have already reached an agreement with North Korea on Bae's release.
"It's especially notable that there is a breakthrough in the issue of Kenneth Bae as expectations grow over the resumption of possible talks between North Korea and the US," the source said.
China's top point man on Korea is on a separate trip to North Korea, which has been on a peace offensive in recent months.
Several American citizens have been held in North Korea and many of them were ultimately freed. Bae is the first detained in North Korea since Kim Jong-un took power in December 2011.
In May 2011, King traveled to North Korea and negotiated the release of Eddie Jun yong-su, a US citizen of Korean ancestry, who had been held there for six months.
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