- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Kenneth Bae says one of most jarring aspects of his long stay in a North Korean prison was a conversation he had with a prison guard watching over him in the labor camp.

The talk “really haunted me,” said Mr. Bae, the Korean-American Christian missionary who spent two years in North Korean custody prior to his sudden release in 2014 — the longest sentence ever served by a U.S. prisoner there.

The college-educated guard revealed that “he’d never in his life heard the name Jesus before,” recalled Mr. Bae, who recounted the experience during a presentation on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

“Where does Jesus live? In China or North Korea? That was his sincere question that he asked me,” said an exasperated Mr. Bae.

“This is the 21st century in prosperous East Asia,” he said, adding that one of the things he realized during his captivity is that the people of North Korea “really don’t know what it is to live outside.”

“I mentioned to some people, ‘Did you know that the South Korean economy is about 40 times larger than the North Korean economy is?’ And they had no idea,” he said. “Some people I asked, ‘Do you know that the secretary-general of the U.N. is actually South Korean?’ And, the response that I got was, ‘No way, that is not possible.’”

But the fact that an educated government official guarding him had no idea of the existence of Jesus Christ was particularly “painful,” said Mr. Bae, because of his knowledge of Korean history.

Prior to the late-1940s rise of a totalitarian dictatorship in North Korea, Pyongyang was actually known as the “Jerusalem of the Far East” for the large number of Christians who lived there, he said.

It’s one of the characteristics of North Korea that drew him to the isolated nation to begin with — years before he was detained in 2012 and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor on charges of trying to overthrow the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The full details of Mr. Bae’s experience — from the weeks of 15-hour-a-day interrogations to the high-stakes diplomacy that cleared the way for him and another American prisoner, Matthew Todd Miller, to fly home in 2014 on an American jet accompanied by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper — are still coming to light.

Mr. Bae has just published “Not Forgotten: The True Story of My Imprisonment in North Korea,” an intensely personal religious memoir peppered with biblical quotes bolstering his view that God’s hand was behind both his incarceration and release.

The Seoul-born Mr. Bae, 47, came to the U.S. with his family in 1985. After attending the University of Oregon and a seminary in St. Louis, he moved to China in 2006, where he began missionary work. In 2010 he began leading small tour groups into North Korea.

He recounted Wednesday how the groups engaged in a kind of spiritual tourism to a little-known city in the northwestern corner of the country. “I wanted people to walk the land and just pray that someday the people in North Korea would be able to know God just like in the rest of the world and be able to worship God,” Mr. Bae said.

Hard-drive mistake

At first the regime left him alone. Mr. Bae brought more than 300 people on tours between 2011 and 2012. But on his 18th trip, he said, he made what he called a “very crucial mistake” — inadvertently bringing a computer hard drive along in a briefcase he meant to leave behind in China.

The hard drive had files about his missionary work. It also contained a video of emaciated North Korean children scrounging in the dirt for food — footage Mr. Bae said a friend had sent him years earlier and that he not ever fully watched.

After the banned material was discovered, he was held in seclusion in a hotel in northeastern North Korea for a month while officials grilled him. The book describes how he was given little to eat, generally a few bites of rice and some wilted vegetables, and was forced to watch government propaganda every evening. But he was not beaten or overtly physically abused by authorities.

He eventually confessed that one of the documents on his hard drive was a plan for what he described as “Operation Jericho” — an effort to bring tourists into North Korea to pray and spread the love of God. They would not have openly evangelized, but he had hoped that the “walls” isolating North Koreans from the rest of the world would come crumbling down, just as the walls of Jericho fell in the Bible story.

The book outlines how North Korean officials did not understand the plan’s metaphorical nature, and how Mr. Bae struggled to explain that he wasn’t trying to actually overthrow the government. The government sentenced him to 15 years in prison, but his weak health — including a bad back, diabetes and gallstones — made it difficult for him to perform hard labor.

He spent some of his time resting in a hospital room.

It was there, Mr. Bae said Wednesday, that he realized that “no other American had ever stayed in North Korea for more than a year, and I knew that I was going to stay longer.”

“I had to make a choice,” he said, adding that he began praying deeply as he pondered whether to fight his incarceration or somehow embrace it.

He finally determined that it was “God’s will” that had put him there. “After that moment,” he said, “my perspective of life in prison changed because I was no longer there as a prisoner, but I was there as God’s ambassador — somebody who was sent from God to do God’s work.”

It was that belief that ultimately brought him through the ordeal, Mr. Bae said, adding that it has since made him realize that he had a new mission: to remind the world not to forget the ordinary people who are suffering in North Korea.

“We need to differentiate between the government and the people. The people are suffering without knowing what is coming next for them,” Mr. Bae said. “We as people outside need to continue to stand up for them and reach out to them and remember them through prayer support and any other blessing we can give.

“My hope in writing this book is that people will see what life is like for people there and also have more compassion for the people of North Korea.”

The book’s release comes as Pyongyang has two other Americans in custody.

University of Virginia student Otto F. Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in March for trying to steal a political banner with a government slogan on it. Kim Dong Chul was sentenced last month to 10 years of hard labor on charges of espionage and subversion.

Mr. Bae said his “heart goes out to them and their families,” and that they should not give up hope that the U.S. government is working to secure their release.

During an earlier interview with The Associated Press, he said the worst parts of his own detention were knowing his family was worrying constantly about him and not knowing what the White House might be doing to try to free him.

Eventually, former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman became involved, first asking Mr. Kim on Twitter to “do me a solid” and release Mr. Bae. Mr. Rodman then traveled with other basketball players to North Korea and — in what he later described as a rant fueled by alcohol and stress — suggested in an on-camera interview that Mr. Bae’s detention might be justified.

In his book Mr. Bae writes that the backlash against Mr. Rodman’s comments actually helped raise awareness of his case in the U.S. and increased pressure for his release.

“Thanks to Dennis Rodman’s drunken outburst and my sister’s defense of me, my case had now catapulted to a new level of national consciousness and outrage,” he writes.

Asked about Mr. Rodman Wednesday, Mr. Bae said he hasn’t met the former basketball star, but did thank him during a recent interview with CNN and noticed that Mr. Rodman had subsequently “tweeted that he is thankful for my remark.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide