Kenneth Bae: Longest-Serving North Korean Prisoner

In a perfect world, you would have heard about Kenneth Bae long before spectators and gawkers to the world arena were haranguing Dennis Rodman to petition on his behalf. That is, Rodman claimed to be “friends for life” with Kim Jong Eun, and the DPRK has imprisoned the American: the laity put two and two together and demanded that Rodman use his considerable clout to change Jong Eun’s mind. As though he had the ability to do that; as though this political arrest had anything to do with “basketball diplomacy.”

Sure, Rodman could have. Instead, he made an ass of himself and implied that Bae had done something to deserve being arrested by the North Koreans. But was that really so stupid? I would never accuse Rodman of strategy or cunning, but the suggestion that Bae had earned his arrest was more politic than the opposing claims. As Bae himself said in a recent and rare press conference, comments made by Vice President Biden and even Bae’s own sister were more harmful than helpful: announcing that he was imprisoned unjustly, for no reason, was interpreted by Pyongyang as a challenge to their integrity and authority.

It’s with good reason that the response of experts and analysts of North Korea has not been covered by western media. Most Americans, underinformed and emotional, would respond with hatred and violence rather than a few moments’ quiet consideration on the subject, hearing what they have to say.

To address this, let’s back up a moment. What is the deal with Kenneth Bae? He’s a 45 y.o. Korean-American missionary and tour guide running a business, “Nations Tour,” out of China. He was born in South Korea in 1968 and emigrated to the U.S. in 1986, then to China in 2005. He was apprehended on one tour when DPRK guards discovered he was carrying a computer disk with images of starving North Korean orphans, exactly the kind of thing North Korea doesn’t want the rest of the world to know about. I mean, we already know about it, but North Korea persistently and categorically denies anything like this is going on, because that’s how their government controls its own people.

He was detained in November 2012 and charged in December of using his tour group to attempt to overthrow the DPRK and other “crimes against the state.” The Associated Press was unable to corroborate North Korea’s claims that Bae was in collusion with “Operation Jericho,” as reported in a South Korean newspaper. The government made noise that Bae merited the death penalty for his offenses, but in light of his “confession” this was mitigated to a 15-year sentence at hard labor. Health issues have kept him in the hospital recently, but at his press conference he expressed the sense that he would be returned to work soon.

Bae was permitted this press conference shortly after North Korea proposed they would stop their hate-speech against the South if South Korea would cease their U.S.-coordinated military drills. Some call this North Korea’s “charm offensive”, a phrase I find attractive. South Korea responded to this with a markedly incendiary refusal, and North Korea responded to that by trotting out Kenneth Bae in prison garb before a roomful of reporters.


After a long period of both doing nothing and doing very little, the U.S. government has announced that it is “preparing” a “special envoy” to “secure” Bae’s release. We’ll see: this would be the very quiet and motionless  Ambassador Robert R. King. Have you ever heard of him before? Of course you haven’t—he hasn’t done anything to distinguish himself in terms of human rights in North Korea.

You may also recall in January, one year ago, when former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and Google CEO Eric Schmidt led a group of businessmen to North Korea, following that nation’s rocket tests, to advocate on behalf of Bae as well as human rights in general. As usual, the U.S. government decried this as “unhelpful” while abstaining from any measurable activity of its own. Critics, of course, accused Schmidt of wanting nothing more than to extend Google into North Korea, because that was an easy target at which to direct their jaded cynicism. (In fact, the Rodong Sinmun characterized Richardson and Schmidt as suffering venereal disease and worth only to be spat upon. Western journalism, surprisingly, entirely omitted mentioning this.) Even the Swedish embassy in North Korea sent someone to meet with Bae on Dec. 21, 2012. Why Sweden? Because they represent the U.S., since the U.S. has neither the ability nor the will to establish communication with North Korea: former president Jimmy Carter planned to visit on Bae’s behalf in 2013, and the U.S. State Department specifically advised against this.

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Journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling. Image: Brigitte Lacombe

Five other American prisoners, detained since 2009, have been released from North Korea, including journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, retrieved by former president Bill Clinton; Laura and Euna, who were attempting to break into North Korea by way of the Tumen River. Astute readers will recognize the Ling family name: Laura’s sister Lisa headed a National Geographic documentary on North Korea. Signal in this were her astoundingly naïve and confrontational questions directed to timid or brainwashed elderly citizens—questions her guide refused to translate at times because they were so provocative and offensive. She misinterpreted this reluctance as an ingrained inability to question the authority of Kim Jong Il, but no, he was just trying to not get them arrested or shot. And to think, Lisa was laughing her way along the razor’s edge of a prison camp scant weeks before her own sister was arrested in the nation.

So who could argue against bringing an American citizen home? One commentator has suggested that Bae deserves no special consideration, when held up against the millions of starving citizens and up to 200,000 political prisoners. The argument goes that they had no control over their fate and have done nothing wrong, while Bae had the luxury of self-determination. He chose to proselytize in an atheist dictatorship and, in the manner of Socrates, earned his punishment within that context, even if we consider it morally reprehensible on the larger scale.

Supporting this, Dr. Andrei Lankov goes even further to assert that Bae is different even from other foreign prisoners, in that they accidentally broke unknown rules or were arbitrarily detained. “Unlike them,” Dr. Lankov says, “he knowingly committed acts which are seen as seriously subversive by the North Korean law”. He believes the Koreans are reserving Bae as a political bargaining chip, though it is unknown to what end.

This begs the question, as my wife has pointed out: why is it so imperative to raise this point? When Bae’s life is endangered, why do scholars find it crucial to diminish the urgency of his detention and redirect our concern? Well, I’m not sure. It’s inarguable, at least on the statistical level, that 200,000 innocent citizens languishing in penal camps is a larger crime than one missionary who willfully transgressed the laws of a dictatorship. Yet when disparate groups are trying to strengthen palsied attempts to free Bae, like the other five American prisoners have been, I’m not sure why the insistence that we not place too much priority upon his condition. If I were working myself to death in a North Korean prison camp, I wouldn’t take very much comfort in well-fed and housed scholars in other parts of the world denigrating me as an unworthy subject, considering other factors. I think I’d resent them, whatever the charges of my imprisonment. I would resent being forced into a role within a false dichotomy.


Western Media Bias

Voice of America reports Rodman did not advocate “because he was just there to play a basketball game for leader Kim Jong Un’s birthday and have some fun.” True, and this comes from direct quotes, but this condescending tone is less than strictly neutral journalism and works to bias the reader’s mind in one direction rather than letting the facts achieve this effect. It’s a form of stress relief for the publication, perhaps, but it also assumes their readership is too stupid to understand what they’re reading and requires some guidance.

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