North Korea canceled a planned trip for a U.S. envoy to travel to Pyongyang to seek the release of imprisoned and ailing American missionary Kenneth Bae, the U.S. State Department said on Friday.
North Korea withdrew its invitation to Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, who was expected to visit Pyongyang on Friday and Saturday.
"We are surprised and disappointed by North Korea's decision," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
"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," the spokeswoman said in a written statement, referring to the North by its formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
King's trip, announced this week as he was visiting U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, was seen as a possible signal of the start of a gradual thaw in relations between Washington and Pyongyang.
The State Department had termed the trip a "humanitarian mission" and played down any connection between Bae's release and diplomacy over the North's sanctioned nuclear weapons program.
Representative Rick Larsen, who represents the district in Washington state where Bae's family lives, expressed disappointment at Pyonyang's decision and urged the North Koreans to free Bae.
"I know this setback will be difficult for the Bae family who had hoped for good news today," Larsen, a Democrat, said in a statement.
"The North Koreans gain nothing from this course reversal. It is time to let Kenneth come home to his family and get the medical attention he needs," added Larsen.
King secured the release of another Korean-American missionary, Jung Young Su, in 2011 as part of a trip to assess North Korean pleas for food aid.
Relations between Washington and Pyongyang have been in deep freeze since the collapse of a deal in early 2012, when North Korea broke its promise to end its long-range rocket launches and prevented nuclear inspectors from examining its nuclear stockpile and production.
Nuclear talks involving the United States, China, Japan and the two Koreas have been frozen for five years, although Pyongyang in 2005 had signed on to a deal in which it would have frozen its nuclear program in exchange for economic and energy aid. North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006.
Bae, 45, was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for attempting to overthrow the North Korean state by spreading anti-government propaganda, according to North Korean media. He has diabetes and his health has deteriorated since he was jailed.
North Korean state media said Bae started his plot to "topple" the country's government in 2006, a date that coincides with his own testimony about his arrival in China.
It accused him of infiltrating 250 students into the country, spreading "false propaganda" and of bribing North Korean citizens in a bid to bring down the government.
Bae lived in a Chinese town that borders North Korea and worked for a tour company while undertaking missionary work inside North Korea.
North Korea says it permits religious freedom, but religious expression is in effect tightly controlled in a state that acknowledges total loyalty to the Kim dynasty that has ruled for three generations. North Korea features at the bottom of most independent surveys of freedom.
In online postings of one of his speeches on his missionary work, Bae described himself and a party he took to North Korea as "warriors for Christ" and told of holding a prayer meeting on a beach.
The postings have since been removed, as have all traces of Bae's involvement with a tour company operating out of China.
In a videotaped sermon, also removed from the Internet, Bae talked of bringing 300 people to a coastal town in North Korea to emulate the biblical destruction of the walls of Jericho.
Bae's family has acknowledged his deeply held religious beliefs but have suggested that his sympathy for North Korean orphans may have been behind his arrest.