Yellow Ribbon Project

Who Is Kenneth Bae, the Longest-Held U.S. Prisoner in North Korea?

WASHINGTON — For those who held onto slim hope that former NBA player Dennis Rodman might help secure the release of an American held in a North Korea prison camp, Rodman’s outburst of regime propaganda today demonstrated he knows or cares little about Kenneth Bae.

“Are you going to take an opportunity, if you get it, to speak up for the family of Kenneth Bae and say, ‘Let us know why this man is being held?’ If you can help them, will you take the opportunity?” CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked.

“The one thing about politics, Kenneth Bae did one thing. If you understand — if you understand what Kenneth Bae did,” Rodman shot back. “Do you understand what he did? In this country?”

As it was quickly revealed, Rodman had no idea what Bae is purported to have done — other than offend his dear compatriot Kim Jong-un.

Bae, 44, was born in South Korea and graduated from high school in Torrance, Calif. “To those who know Kenneth Bae, he is the larger-than-life kind of guy who loved to rock the Miami Vice look, the white blazer with the sleeves pushed up and gelled hairstyle, back in the ‘80s. He is the guy who is always surrounded by friends, hosting homemade meals and regaling everyone with hilarious tales and his renditions of Elvis Presley tunes,” his family states on a website appealing for his release.

“Kenneth is the guy who always does the right thing, no matter the cost. He is the guy who dropped out of college at the age of 22 to support his own young family. He is the guy who would come home late from working two jobs and just spend hours watching his baby son sleep. He is the guy who follows his personal convictions, even to the ends of the world.”

A devout Christian, Bae thought he could help suffering North Koreans in part by leading a tour company in the special economic zones that would help reveal the people’s plight. On Nov. 3, 2012, he was stopped in Rajin-Sonbong while leading a tour group, a routine visit his family says he’d done more than 15 times before.

His crime? Bae had a computer disk with photos of starving North Korean orphans and other “propaganda” like a National Geographic documentary on the DPRK. For this he was accused of trying to stage a religious coup against the communist government, conducting a smear campaign against the regime, and encouraging North Koreans to topple the Kim dynasty.

In short: “Hostile acts against the republic.”

“When last in America and South Korea, Kenneth Bae went to several churches and preached about the need for North Korea’s immediate collapse,” a government spokesman said, claiming Bae was creating an “anti-government coalition” with other missionaries.

After a secret “trial” in April, Bae was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor.

Since then, the American’s health has deteriorated. He’s losing his vision because he can’t get proper care for his diabetes, has gallstones, and the labor camp is also taking a toll on his heart.

“We need people to take action and rally support for this fellow American in need. We need our government to swiftly secure amnesty for Kenneth. We need to bring Kenneth home,” his family says.

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), Bae’s home-state representative, said Rodman’s comments were insensitive.

“Dennis Rodman should stick to basketball and not cast aspersions on a fellow American who is being held by a foreign nation,” Larsen said. “Kenneth Bae and his family have gone through more than enough without having to listen to these hurtful statements from somebody who clearly does not know what he is talking about.”

“I join the White House in renewing our call for North Korea to grant a pardon and special amnesty for Kenneth and to immediately release him so he can come home to his family,” he added. “I pledge my continuing support to Kenneth’s family and will continue working with them and the State Department to ensure his safe return home.”

Over at the White House, press secretary Jay Carney said he’d heard Rodman’s comments, “but I’m not going to dignify that outburst with a response.”

“I’m simply going to say that we remain gravely concerned about Kenneth Bae’s health and continue to urge DPRK authorities to grant his amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds,” Carney added.

Over at the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked whether Rodman’s comments about Bae’s guilt could put the American in additional danger.

“Well, we already are concerned about the situation he’s in, to be fair,” Psaki said. “I don’t have any further comments or analysis of the impact but other than to say that his comments are not representative of the views of the United States government, because obviously he’s not speaking on our behalf and he’s not there on our behalf.”

“So we’re working through our own channels. I’m not going to do more analysis of his comments and what they may or may not mean.”

But that work doesn’t seem to have consisted of much more than calling for Bae’s release. An envoy planned to visit Pyongyang in August to ask for our citizen’s freedom, but he wasn’t allowed to come.

A month ago, when Pyongyang released Korean War veteran Merrill Newman, it kept Bae in custody.

Vice President Joe Biden praised Newman’s release on a trip to South Korea. “It’s a positive thing they’ve done, but they have Mr. Bae, who is — has no reason being held in the North; should be released immediately. And we demand his release as well,” Biden said. “So — but this is one bright piece of sunshine today that Mr. Newman will be returned and reunited with his family.”

Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who have secured previous releases of Americans from North Korea, haven’t jumped in on Bae’s behalf.

Back in May, under pressure to use his new friendship with the dictator for some semblance of good, Rodman tweeted that Kim should “do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose.” But when asked about the crisis a few months later, Rodman snapped, “Guess what? That’s not my job to ask about Kenneth Bae, ask Obama about that. Ask Hillary Clinton.”

Eugene Cho, a congregant at the same church as Bae’s sister Terri Chung, wrote on his blog that Bae “was charged – in essence – for being a Christian.”

“He was charged for taking his faith in Christ to heart. He was found guilty of wanting to share God’s love with those in North Korea,” Cho wrote.

“The Church cannot forget Kenneth Bae. We cannot forget the Kenneths, the Yousef Nadarkhani’s, the Pastor Saeed Abedini’s, and the thousands of other Christians around the world that are persecuted for their faith in Christ. They are our brother and sisters. While governments, media, and the citizens of their countries may forget them and even mock and criticize them…the Church must not forget.”

TO HELP: Sign the petition calling for Bae’s release or write him an email at [email protected] to help lift his spirits. The Swedish ambassador to North Korea will attempt to deliver the letters to Bae.