Inside the ordeal that inspires Kenneth Bae

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Inside the ordeal that inspires Kenneth Bae


Kenneth Bae, 48, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Seoul, was the first American to be sent to a North Korean labor camp as punishment for a grave crime. Despite his two-year ordeal - the longest detention of any American hostage - Bae still has hopes for North Korea. [PARK SANG-MOON]

When North Korea announced the arrest of two Americans, a researcher and a teacher, earlier this month - bringing the total number of Americans it detains to four - Kenneth Bae’s phone started ringing. Bae had no personal connection with Kim Hak-song, an agricultural researcher at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, or Tony Kim (aka Kim Sang-duk), an accounting teacher at the same school. But few people knew better what they were going through - and journalists wanted Bae to describe it.

Bae was a captive of North Korea, part of the “hostage diplomacy” it has conducted for decades. He was the first American to be sent to a labor camp as punishment for grave crimes. He was held captive longer than any other American hostage: 735 days from Nov. 3, 2012 to Nov. 8, 2014. Japanese abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 80s have spent decades in North Korea, but they are considered different and the abductions stopped long ago. Bae turned down most interview requests. The 48-year-old started a new life in South Korea in March dealing with sensitive issues such as defectors. The last thing he needed was to attract the attention of his former captor, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Despite his two-year ordeal, Kenneth Bae hasn’t given up on North Korea. He has plans for that benighted land. Very big plans.

Message from the Lord

Born in Seoul, Bae moved to the U.S. at the age of 16 with his mother and sister and became a naturalized American citizen. His family are devout Christians.

At a youth retreat in South Korea in 1984 at the age of 16, the pastor talked about receiving visions from the Lord. Everyone should ask the Lord what they should become when they grow up, the pastor said.

Bae prayed and felt the Lord speak to him. He told him to become a “shepherd.” Bae started telling people: “Maybe I should be a pastor.”

After Bible college, Bae set up a cultural exchange company in Dalian, China, a front for missionary work. In September 2010, he was invited by a humanitarian group to visit North Korea.

It was his first time in North Korea. And after discussions with North Korean officials meeting with the group, Bae realized there was business potential in leading tours to North Korea, which was just opening up to Western tourists.

In 2011, he founded a company called Nations Tours in China. From March of that year to November 2012, the company conducted tours that took nearly 300 people from 17 countries around Pyongyang and other parts of the country. Of those 23 tours, Bae led 18. Half of his clientele hailed from English-speaking countries like the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The others were from Europe, Africa and South America.

All were Christians.

Bae’s tour agency was also a front for missionary work, which is highly illegal and very, very dangerous in North Korea. But some Christian missionaries consider it one of the great challenges of our time: a country where any religious activity is repressed - although some people practice religion privately - and where religious gatherings are considered challenges to the leadership.

For adventurous proselytizers, it’s the Everest of missionary work - with the added risk of becoming a Golgotha.

Bae says he wanted to show other Christians the North Korean land and inspire them to “have a heart” for its deprived and oppressed people.

The North Korean government knew Bae’s tourists were all Christians, he says, and may have assumed he was involved in missionary work. But no official ever confronted him about it. Bae claims to have crafted a good reputation among North Korean authorities, which he credits to his own kind nature - and the steady stream of cash-carrying tourists he brought in. His tours were all officially permitted by the state. Seventeen of them went off without a hitch.

Not the 18th.


Right before his release on Nov. 8, 2014 in Pyongyang. North Korean officials said leader Kim Jong-un had issued a “special pardon.” [SCREEN GRAB FROM CNN]

Crossing the line

Getting on the wrong side of North Korean law is easy, and the smallest mistake can be catastrophic. Bae had a long list of rules for members of his tours to the North: You can bring a Bible for personal reading but don’t leave it behind. Don’t bring a notebook unless it’s empty. You can bring an iPod to listen to music, but its contents will be checked by the North Koreans. Don’t bring any computer hard drives.

Anything the minders see that is questionable, Bae warned his tourists, can lead to your temporary detention and questioning.

Questioning can lead to even worse: indefinite detention.

Bae personally kept every rule - until his 18th tour.

Bae wasn’t supposed to go. The four-day tour of Rason, on the northeastern tip of North Korea, had only four foreigners booked: two Americans, one Australian and his German wife. Bae usually led groups of 10 or more, while his underlings led smaller batches.

But an international tour company in Rason specifically asked Bae to come. They wanted to discuss a new travel route around North Korea for the following year.

Bae had just arrived home from a two-week tour in Pyongyang. His wife missed him and wanted him to stay. It was the first time she tried to hold him back.

But he went.

On Nov. 3, 2012, Bae crossed into Rason. In his briefcase was a computer disk drive that included different documentaries featuring starving North Koreans. One showed children picking up noodles from the dirt. Some video clips were shown to his tourists as part of a general introduction to the isolated country. Bae says he forgot to give the disk to his secretary before he left home.

Those documentaries were certain to cause Bae woe. But there was something worse on the hard drive: a document mentioned “Operation Jericho,” in which Bae spelled out an ambitious plan to bring tourists into North Korea to privately pray for its people and spread the love of God. He hoped that the power of those accumulated prayers would eventually topple the very real barriers separating North Korea from the rest of the world, as in the biblical story of the walls of Jericho.

Which sounds like a miracle - until you realize that Bae described waves of people coming into North Korea, which is not far from an invasion in the eyes of the North.

Bae was arrested for trying to overthrow the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea - a crime that carried the death penalty.

In April 2013, Bae was sentenced to 15 years in labor camp, a first for a U.S. citizen. He was told he had committed “the most serious crime” by an American since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Even considering North Korea’s penchant for hyperbole, that fact may have been true. And yet Bae got the strong impression from the start that he was being used as a pawn in the Great Game between North Korea and the West.

Three months after Bae was detained, North Korea carried out its third nuclear test, which coincided with then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. In response, the U.S. moved nuclear-capable stealth bombers to South Korea for joint military exercises with the South Korean military. The UN tightened sanctions on North Korea’s banking, trade and travel industries. Obama said in his address that such provocations would only isolate the country further.

“They kept me there because I was American,” says Bae. “Two months after I was in labor camp, the chief prosecutor came to see me and asked, ‘How come your government isn’t doing anything? At this pace, you’ll probably have to stay here until I retire.’”

That prosecutor’s retirement was only six or seven years away. Bae realized the North never intended him to serve out his sentence. “I pretty much felt like a hostage,” he recalls.

Bae was never physically tortured, although he was deprived of sleep for the first few days of interrogation and had to stand still or kneel on a concrete floor for a couple of hours in punishment for denying his charges. The labor camp he was assigned to was apparently for foreigners only. He never met another prisoner.

From 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days a week, he toiled in the fields, plowing and planting beans and potatoes. On other days, he carried rocks and shoveled coal. When he got back to his cell, room No. 103, he was forced to watch North Korean television. He lived with hunger - a normal meal consisted of a few noodles, a small fried egg and shreds of vegetables.

Bae weighed 94 kilograms (207 pounds) and his waist line was 38 inches when he entered the North. He had diabetes, back pain, hyperlipidemia and a fatty liver. Nurses at the prison hospital said he wasn’t fit for hard labor. The guards replied that the work would “heal” Bae.

But whenever his weight dropped - at one point plummeting to 67 kilograms - he was moved to a hospital for foreigners in Pyongyang. He moved back and forth from prison camp.

The food was better when he was hospitalized. He could sometimes order tea and ice cream. His room was air-conditioned. There was no labor. Bae sensed the North was worried about its image abroad, trying to “fatten” him up when it felt his release was near - when some U.S. envoy would be cajoled to come to his rescue.

On the positive side, he was allowed to read the Bible and communicate with family members. His jailers told him to tell his relatives to “try harder” for his release.

Bae knew Pyongyang wanted Washington to send the highest-profile figure possible. In 2009, former President Bill Clinton flew in to secure the release of two American television journalists who had crossed the border with China to get shots of themselves in North Korea.

The Clinton visit set a very high bar.

His mother was allowed to visit once, which Bae calls a “publicity stunt” by the North to show the world how generously they were treating a prisoner. Their tearful reunion was recorded and streamed online by the Choson Sinbo, a Japanese pro-North Korean newspaper.

“They wanted to increase attention,” says Bae. “They wanted the whole world to know they’re treating a prisoner in a hospital so they could later let me go on humanitarian grounds - and to get what they want.”

The most difficult part was not knowing when he’d return home.

“I was counting the days,” says Bae. “Maybe next week or next month. I knew I would be released some day. I hoped that day was tomorrow.”

On Nov. 7, 2014 , then-U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper flew into Pyongyang and arranged to fly out with Bae and another American detainee, Matthew Todd Miller.

Bae had no idea what was going on until he was escorted from the hospital to a hotel in Pyongyang. He waited in a function room. Clapper walked in and North Korean officials read an order from Kim Jong-un pardoning Bae.

Bae had become truly friendly with the guards at his labor camp. The warden of the prison teared up as Bae prepared to leave. With a firm handshake, he said, “Tto bobshida (let’s meet again).”

On Nov. 8, 2014, Bae flew out with Clapper and Miller on a government aircraft with “United States of America” emblazoned on the fuselage.


Bae has been working as co-president of Serving Life International in Seodaemun District, western Seoul, since March, helping North Korean defectors here and in China. Last Tuesday, the local public was invited for a weekly gathering at the office to pray for North Koreans to be “free.” [PARK SANG-MOON]

‘A shepherd without his sheep’

North Korea’s hard labor did nothing to change Kenneth Bae’s dreams. In fact, they deepened them.

“I knew that God was using me as a light to be a missionary inside prison and outside prison,” says Bae.

Several prison guards asked him about Christianity - what good it brought to his life, and who God truly was. When he arrived back in the U.S., Bae says he felt like a “shepherd who left his sheep behind.”

“I thought I had done my mission,” he says. “I was doing marriage counseling, premarital counseling, parenting, talking to them [North Korean guards] and becoming their shepherd and friend.

“My job was to become a little Jesus to them. I could not preach the gospel but I lived it out.”

Since his release, Bae traveled around the world to share his experiences in North Korea, publishing an autobiography in English in 2016 entitled “Not Forgotten: The True Story of My Imprisonment in North Korea.” His tour company in China closed after his arrest.

Last October, he settled in Seoul, returning to a country he left behind 32 years earlier. His wife, a Chinese national who is ethnically Korean, left the couple’s previous home in Dandong, China, and moved in with Bae in March.

Bae is co-president of Serving Life International, a Seoul-based nongovernmental organization that helps North Korean refugees in China and South Korea.

His new calling, says Bae, is to be a “bridge” between the two Koreas, laying the groundwork for a unified peninsula.

Serving Life International runs an orphanage called the House of Hope in a small Chinese-Korean village near the Tumen River, taking care of orphans whose North Korean mothers either died or were forced back to the North or escaped to a third country.

It provides counseling services, leadership programs, English lessons and Bible studies to defectors in the South. Every Tuesday at 7:15 p.m., members of the public are invited to their office in Seodaemun District, western Seoul, to pray for North Koreans to be “free.”

The group supports underground churches in North Korea with “spiritual, financial support and tangible materials for the development of business to aid their community,” according to the website.

Bae’s imprisonment in the North has enabled him to connect with North Korean defectors like never before. They consider him an escapee, too.

“I’ve seen all their movies, heard all their songs and read books,” Bae says. “I feel like I have an addiction to North Korea. I check North Korean news like 10 times a day now, always thinking about the country.

“It’s a burden God has placed in my heart.”

On South Korea’s new liberal president, Moon Jae-in, an advocate of former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun’s Sunshine Policy, or engagement with the North, Bae hopes Moon doesn’t neglect North Korean refugees for the sake of improving relations with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.

“I hope South Korea communicates with the North but still stands with what is the truth,” Bae says. “Instead of refraining to pass certain laws or raise issues out of fear of offending North Korea, the new president should be courageous enough to be able to say what is right is right, and what isn’t right isn’t right.”

Looking back, Bae has no harsh feelings for the North Korean government. He calls his experience a part of his “job hazard.” Bae actually wants to return some day to meet with ordinary North Koreans. Will he be allowed to? Probably not. Will he try?

Bae won’t say. But it’s clear he hasn’t forgotten his dream of Operation Jericho. In a prayer session at the Serving Life International’s Seodaemun office last week, Bae told participants: “We’ll have to find 100,000 Bible deliverers. They’ll each hand out 10 Bibles and tell the North Koreans: ‘This book changed me. It will change you, too.’ It’s not that hard. We just need to be prepared.”

The operation will happen “when North Korea opens,” he says.

Not everybody thinks that’s a good idea. Bae’s younger sister Terri Chung got a call one day from Wendy Sherman, former undersecretary for political affairs in the U.S. State Department.

Sherman’s message: “Please make sure your brother never goes back to North Korea.”

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