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U.S. missionary jailed in North Korea in better health, mother says

By Jack Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) - The mother of jailed U.S. missionary Kenneth Bae, who is serving a 15-year sentence for state subversion in North Korea, has seen her ailing son and he appeared to be in better health, she said on Friday in Pyongyang.

Myunghee Bae told Japan's Kyodo news agency she had met her son in a hospital and he was still far from healthy. She said she would remain in Pyongyang for a few days.

"I saw him at the hospital," Bae said in TV footage taken by Kyodo in Pyongyang. "His condition seems to be all right, not good, but seems much better."

Kenneth Bae, 45, was born in South Korea, but is a naturalized U.S. citizen. He has been serving a hard labor sentence after being convicted in May of crimes against the state.

Bae has acknowledged being a missionary and has said he conducted religious services in the North, one of the most isolated states on earth and long hostile to Westerners advocating religious causes.

The country's Supreme Court said he used his tourism business to form groups aimed at overthrowing the government.

Before arriving in Pyongyang on Thursday, Bae's mother said she hoped to encourage her son, who has diabetes and has lost a great deal of weight during his incarceration. She expressed gratitude to Pyongyang for allowing the visit.

She was greeted on arrival by the Swedish ambassador to Pyongyang, according to the Choson Sinbo, a pro-Pyongyang Korean newspaper based in Japan. Sweden provides consular services for some countries that do not have diplomatic relations with the North, including the United States.

Bae was detained last November as he led a tour group through the northern region of the country. He was sentenced amid a long series of acrimonious exchanges between Pyongyang and Washington over the reclusive state's nuclear program.

His plight has attracted international attention.

In August, a planned trip by Robert King, U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights issues, to try to negotiate Bae's release was cancelled by North Korea.

King's trip had been seen as a signal that relations between Washington and Pyongyang might start to improve after months of tension over North Korea's latest nuclear weapons test and its repeated threats to launch nuclear attacks against the United States and its ally, South Korea.

On Thursday, a friend of the Bae family, which is based in the Seattle area, said he was hopeful the mother's trip signaled that Bae would soon be allowed to return home.

But Bae's sister, Terri Chung, said the family was "trying to keep our expectations low and realistic". The family, she said, had received no information about whether North Korea was considering releasing her brother.

Bae has spent much of the last seven years in China, where he started a business leading tour groups into the northern region of North Korea, according to his sister.

(Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski in Tokyo, Heejung Jung in Seoul and Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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