North Korea Sentences U.S. Citizen to 15 Years Hard Labor


Date:  2013-05-04

He is said to be a 'Devout Christian'

By Dan Wooding
Founder of ASSIST Ministries

PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA (ANS) -- Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old tour operator from Lynnwood, Washington state, who is said to be a "devout Christian," has been sentenced to 15 years of compulsory hard labor, after being tried by North Korea's highest court for unspecified "hostile acts" against the country.

Kenneth Bae has been sentenced
to 15 years' hard labor
(Photograph: Yonhap/Reuters)

According to a story by Alastair Gale in the Wall Street Journal (, "North Korea has provided no details of the alleged crime committed by Mr. Bae, but activists in Seoul say he was interested in bringing attention to humanitarian issues and may have been detained for possessing images of vagrant North Korean children. Groups of orphans, known as 'kotjebi,' or wandering swallows, are found throughout North Korea."

He went on to say, "Last week, North Korea said Mr. Bae had committed crimes 'aimed to topple' the government, a charge that could have brought the death penalty. There was no explanation for the apparent lesser charge.

"The sentence for Mr. Bae complicates efforts by the U.S. and South Korea to lower tensions on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang is thought to be preparing for a possible missile test from its east coast and has shut down a joint industrial zone with the South."

The story continued by saying that Mr. Bae entered Rason, a North Korean special economic zone bordering China and Russia, with a tour group in November and was detained soon afterward. Mr. Bae, who was born in South Korea and is based in China, is a regular visitor to...

a kotjebi boy smoking

"Mr. Bae has been supporting an orphanage and running a bakery with the North Korean authorities' agreement," said Do Hee-yoon, a member of Seoul-based activist group Citizen's Coalition for the Human Rights of North Korean Refugees. "But he is being detained for taking pictures of North Korean homeless children."

The U.S. State Department has called for Mr. Bae's release on humanitarian grounds and says he met with officials from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang last Friday. The U.S., which has no diplomatic links with North Korea, is represented by Sweden in the country.
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Gale said that a group led by Google Inc. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in January attempted to meet Mr. Bae during a trip to North Korea but were denied access.

"In recent years, former U.S. presidents have travelled to North Korea to secure the release of detained American citizens. South Korean media reported Thursday that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was seeking a visit to North Korea that may be part of a move to bring Mr. Bae back," he wrote.

"Mr. Carter secured the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes in 2010, after the U.S. citizen was found guilty of similar alleged crimes. Mr. Carter's office wasn't available for comment on the media reports."

A North Korean guard brutally kicking a prisoner in a labor camp

Mr. Bae was born in South Korea and is a naturalized U.S. citizen, according to an account on the University of Oregon's Daily Emerald website. He was a student at the university from 1988 to 1990, but didn't graduate, the Daily Emerald reported.

Michelle FlorCruz of International Business Times (, said that according to the regime's state-run news outlet, the Korean Central News Agency, they had referred to Bae by his Korean name, Pae Jun-ho, the Washington resident was arrested last November in Rason, a city located in the DPRK's far northeastern region that borders China and Russia.

"Friends of Bae described him as a devout Christian who was based in the coastal city of Dalian, China, travelling frequently between countries to help feed the orphans in North Korea," she wrote.

"Previous reports suggested that Bae, who worked as a tour operator in Washington, was being accused of attempting to overthrow the North Korean government and of possibly taking pictures of starving children in the country. Other reports suggest his religious affiliations may have also had something to do with his arrest."

She went on to say, "Bobby Lee and Dennis Kwon are two of Bae's friends who have dedicated the past few months to getting their friend back home. According to the Oregonian, the three arrived in Eugene, Ore., from South Korea during the fall of 1988, to beginning their first semester at the University of Oregon.

"It doesn't surprise Lee that Bae was in North Korea trying to help bring attention to the many ills in North Korean society given that he was very involved in humanitarian causes on campus."

Lee said of his friend, "He wanted people to feel welcome on campus. Ken was part of the team that helped put on these events."

"Knowing Ken from college, he's such a warm-hearted person," Kwon said. "I can't imagine him really breaking the law. ... He probably couldn't walk away from what he saw [in North Korea]."

FlorCruz went on to say, "The three became fast friends, involving themselves in various student groups that helped tutor disadvantaged students and other humanitarian efforts. Bae later dropped out of the university to start working and support his family, but the trio still remained close. In 1990, Kwon was even Bae's best man at his wedding.

A young guard watching over a labor camp

"Now, 23 years later, Lee and Kwon are still standing by their friend. The two have started a Facebook page trying to keep the pressure on authorities to help free their detained friend."

"We're going to make sure he is not forgotten," Lee said.
"We're trying to understand the process in North Korea, which of course is not exactly transparent," Lee said, discussing their approach in getting Bae back to safety. "I think our actions and strategy will evolve over time, because we're still learning."

The U.S. State Department addressed Bae's harsh sentencing in a media briefing Wednesday, saying that his case was probably conducted unfairly considering no one from the Swedish embassy, the U.S.'s proxy representative, was present.

Patrick Ventrell of the State Department declared that Pyongyang should release Bae on amnesty. "I think he needs to know we do care," Lee said. "And that we absolutely love him."

Lucy Williamson of BBC News (, Seoul, South Korea, said, "On the face of it, North Korea's decision to sentence a US citizen to 15 years' hard labor seems to be a direct challenge to Washington: another twist in the cycle of actions and rhetoric that have helped keep relations so tense over the past two months."

She said that "he not the first American citizen to be arrested or tried in North Korea. Over the past few years, Pyongyang has detained two American journalists, a businessman, an English teacher and an activist.

Some were tried and sentenced to hard labor. But all were released following negotiations - some of which involved unofficial visits by high-profile Americans like former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton."

North Korea watches believes that this might be North Korea's latest attend to draw U.S. negotiators to Pyongyang.

"That would give North Korea a domestic propaganda victory, and it might also pave the way for more broader, more official, talks on the wider issues," added Williamson.

The BBC provided this list of recent U.S. detainees in North Korea:

* Eddie Jun Yong-su: Businessman detained for six months in 2011, freed after a visit led by US envoy Robert King

* Aijalon Mahli Gomes: Teacher and Christian jailed in 2010 for eight years over illegal entry via China - freed after Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang

* Robert Park: US activist crossed into North Korea via China in late 2009 - freed in 2010 by North Korea

* Laura Ling/Euna Lee: Jailed in 2009 for 12 years over illegal entry via the Chinese border - freed after Bill Clinton met Kim Jong-il

Analysts suggest Pyongyang could be using the jailed American as leverage. North Korea has arrested several US citizens in recent years, including journalists and Christians accused of proselytizing.
They were released after intervention from high-profile American figures, including former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, both of whom went to Pyongyang.

However, media reports say that Mr Carter has no plans to travel to North Korea to intervene in this case, a spokeswoman said.

"President Carter has not had an invitation to visit North Korea and has no plans to visit," Deanna Congileo said in an email.

North Korea defector Kwon Hyo-jin told Reuters he believes Mr Bae will not be incarcerated in a slave labor camp similar to the one Mr Kwon was locked up in for several years.

Dan Wooding and South Korean pastor, David Cho, by statue of Kim Il Sung in North Korea

"If an American served jail together with North Korean inmates, which won't happen, he could tell them about capitalism or economic developments," Mr Kwon, who defected to South Korea in 2009, said.

"That would be the biggest mistake for North Korea."

One a personal note, having been to North Korea as a journalist, I would ask our many friends to pray for the speedy release of our Christian brother from this land that the Open Doors World Watch List for 2013 has described as the "World Worst Persecutor of Christians." The country has held the top spot in the persecution list for the past 11 years now, and has been widely condemned for its human rights abuses and infringements on religious freedom.

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