Kenneth Bae was seized by North Korean officials in November 2012. Two years later, after suffering myriad health problems brought on by forced labor, Bae’s 15-year sentence was cut short and he headed home to Washington state.
The Christian missionary 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. Pyongyang accused Bae of trying to topple the communist regime.
After the release and death of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, Bae said he was grieving with and praying for the young man’s family.
Bae called attention to the many people “living without freedom in the country of 24 million people – enduring horrible circumstances and forced labor – and we do not even know their names.”
“We plead with the U.S. government, the international community, and leadership in North Korea to value human lives. Every life is important — Otto’s life, lives of the American detainees, and the lives of each person in North Korea. I am a Christian, and part of what that means is to act justly and to have mercy on the innocent. Although we don’t know everything about life in North Korea, this much is sure: innocent people like Otto are suffering. I pray that these innocent people suffering in North Korea are not forgotten in this high-stakes game of weapons, sanctions, and international diplomacy,” Bae’s statement continued.
“Please join me in prayer and be a voice for the innocent. Please join me in praying for Otto’s family. This did not have to happen and should never happen again.”
Bae was released at the same time as Matthew Todd Miller, who had been arrested after entering North Korea in April 2014. In October 2014, Jeffrey Fowle, an Ohio tourist arrested after a Bible was discovered in his hotel room, was released — a month after being sentenced to six years of hard labor. The Pentagon sent an aircraft to pick up Fowle at North Korea’s request.
Ten Americans were detained and released by North Korea during the Obama administration, with Bae serving the longest period in captivity. Warmbier was seized in January 2016, and is believed to have suffered the brain damage that left him in an unresponsive state soon after being sentenced that March.
In June 2016, North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency blamed Bae’s
“babbling” about the regime for the prisoners’ plight, claiming Pyongyang would “not proceed with any compromise or negotiations with the United States on the subject of American criminals, and there will certainly not be any such thing as humanitarian action” as long as the former hostage spoke out about his experiences and advocated for those still suffering.
“As we grieve Otto’s passing, I also want people to know that other Americans remain detained in North Korea right now,” Bae added in his statement this week. “There are three Americans — Kim Dong Chul, Tony Kim, Kim Hak-Song — and the Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim.”
Kim Dong Chul, a businessman and naturalized U.S. citizen who previously lived in Fairfax, Va., was arrested in North Korea’s special economic zone in October 2015 and accused of spying for the South Koreans, which Seoul denied. Kim, in his mid-60s, was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor.
Tony Kim, also known as Kim Sang-duk, was a professor at China’s Yanbian University of Science and Technology who had been visiting to teach at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology for a period of several weeks. Kim had also been a humanitarian aid worker in North Korea. He and his wife were arrested this April as they tried to fly out of the country; she was released while he was detained and accused of committing hostile acts. Like Bae and Kim Dong Chul, Tony Kim is a Christian.
Kim Hak-Song was working in agricultural development at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, managing experimental research to address the country’s food shortage. He was arrested early last month.
“Obviously, this is concerning,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said after the May arrest. “We’re well aware of it and we’re going to work through the embassy of Sweden that has a facility in North Korea — or an embassy in North Korea — through our State Department to seek the release of the individuals there. But I would refer you to the State Department on that.”
State Department press secretary Heather Nauert said today, “We want to see three other Americans, who are unjustly detained, brought home as soon as possible.”
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who at the request of Otto’s family had been working on the Warmbier case through various meetings with the North Koreans for more than a year, called the student’s death a “crime against humanity” and called on the regime to release the other three Americans.
“I’ve been dealing with them for years, and I’ve never seen it so bad,” Richardson told CNN of the Kim regime.