PYONGYANG, North Korea – The American citizen held in North Korea whose profile was raised by a televised outburst from Dennis Rodman is a devout Christian, according to a family-run website advocating for his release.
Kenneth Bae, 44, of Lynnwood, Wash., has been sentenced to 15 years in a North Korean labor camp for a “crime against the state.” He has been imprisoned for more than 14 months, longer than any American has been detained in North Korea.
“Several years ago, Kenneth saw an opportunity that combined his entrepreneurial spirit with his personal convictions as a Christian,” the website, freekennow.com, states. “He believed in showing compassion to the North Korean people by contributing to their economy in the form of tourism.”
Bae was arrested in November 2012 as he was leading a tour group in one of North Korea’s special economic zones for foreign investors.
As the website advocating for his freedom explains, Bae started a tour company based in China in 2006 and regularly led groups to North Korea, “a remote country filled with stunning vistas and a people proud of their history and tradition.”
“His livelihood,” the website states, “was to introduce the natural beauty of the country and its people to the outside world as a tour operator. His heart was to be a personal touch-point of compassionate humanity to the North Korean people.”
In comments to Baptist Press Jan. 14, Bae’s sister Terri Chung said a friend who had gone on one of Bae’s tours described him as “an ambassador of peace and light in the world.”
“That captures what Kenneth was trying to do in North Korea,” Chung told BP. “He had the biggest heart for the people and the nation of North Korea, and he wanted to show tourists from Europe, Canada and the United States a different side to the country than what we typically see in the western media in the hopes of bridging the cultural divide.”
When he was arrested, Bae was on at least his 15th such trip. CNN reported Jan. 13 that North Korea accused him of planning to bring down the government through religious activities.
Earlier, CNN said the state-run Korean Central News Agency claimed Bae was setting up bases in China to topple the North Korean government, was encouraging North Korean citizens to bring down the government and was conducting a “malignant smear campaign.”
Some have speculated, CNN said, that the evidence North Korea cites against Bae may be something he was carrying with him when he was arrested, such as a Bible or other religious literature.
Bae is married with three children. His son Jonathan has written a petition to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, President Obama and Congress, asking them to secure special amnesty for his father. More than 150,000 people have signed the petition, which is accessible at change.org/FreeKenNow.
“My father – like any other American father – was working hard to provide for his family,” the letter from Jonathan Bae states.
Last summer, the son explains, the family received a video of Bae and was shocked to see that he had lost a significant amount of weight.
“His time in prison has clearly taken a toll on his health – and this was only two months into his 15-year sentence. The video showed my father working eight hours of physical labor in the fields, plowing and farming six days a week. He has chronic health conditions, including diabetes, heart problems and back pain, which require close monitoring and medical treatment,” Bae’s son wrote. “We don’t know how quickly his health will deteriorate and how much longer his body can withstand the impact of the labor camp.”
In the video, Bae reportedly asked the U.S. government to help him regain freedom.
A CNN anchor drew attention to Bae’s case during an interview with Dennis Rodman, an eccentric former NBA star who led a group of players to North Korea in January to play basketball for dictator Kim Jong Un.
“Do you understand what he did in this country?” Rodman asked the anchor angrily. “No, no, no. You tell me. You tell me. Why is he held captive here in this country? Why?”
Rodman’s implication that Bae was somehow guilty and deserved imprisonment drew a statement of disapproval from Bae’s family. Chung said Jan. 8 Rodman was “playing games” with her brother’s life.
“Dennis Rodman could do a lot of good by advocating for Kenneth to Kim Jong Un, but instead he has decided to hurl outrageous accusations at my brother, insinuating that Kenneth has done something sinister,” Chung wrote. “He is clearly uninformed about Kenneth’s case, and he is certainly not in any position to pass judgment on Kenneth Bae, who has never had any hostile intentions against [the North Korean government].”
Rodman later apologized for his comments about Bae, saying he had been drinking and was under stress at the time. Chung released another statement saying the family accepted his apology and reiterated the importance of the U.S. government intervening on her brother’s behalf, especially in light of his serious chronic illnesses and the fact that he had been working legally in North Korea.
Once Rodman left North Korea, he was interviewed by CNN in the Beijing airport, saying he did nothing wrong by organizing a basketball game there and expressing remorse for what has happened inside the communist nation.
“I’m sorry for what’s going on in North Korea, the certain situations,” Rodman said, not explaining what he meant by “situations.”
North Korea was ranked as the world’s top prosecutor of Christians for the 12th consecutive year in a report released Jan. 8 by Open Doors, which seeks to strengthen the persecuted church.
The officially atheist state practices a cult-like worship of the Kim family and continues to imprison from 50,000 to 70,000 followers of Christ in concentration camps, prisons or prison-like conditions, according to Open Doors. Possessing a Bible could result in execution or a life sentence in prison.
CNN estimated 200,000 people are kept in a network of prison camps in North Korea, and the U.S. State Department has placed North Korea on its list of “countries of particular concern” for its violations of religious freedom.
Though Bae’s family accepted Rodman’s apology, Chung said her brother’s health and freedom remain her greatest concerns.
“We hope and pray that Rodman’s comments and ongoing antics have not further endangered my brother,” Chung wrote. “Kenneth’s health and freedom are precarious.
“The fact is Kenneth’s life is on the line. Though we understand Rodman enjoyed some laughs and smokes during a couple of basketball games in North Korea, to our family this situation is no joke. This is not a game,” Chung wrote.
Bae’s sister urged people to advocate for his immediate release by calling their congressmen, the State Department and the White House and by visiting freekennow.com.
CNN reported that U.S. officials repeatedly have called on North Korea to release Bae. Last summer Ambassador Robert King, Obama’s special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, was prepared to fly to Pyongyang before North Korea rescinded the invitation.
“In previous instances, North Korea has released Americans in its custody after a visit by some U.S. dignitary – in recent cases, former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton,” CNN said. “But efforts by Bill Richardson, the former ambassador to the United Nations, were unsuccessful in winning Bae’s release during a visit to North Korea last year.”
In addition to signing the petition for special amnesty, Bae’s supporters are asking people to send letters of hope to [email protected]. The letters are compiled and sent to the State Department, and then they are passed to Bae through the Swedish ambassador to North Korea.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press.)