Kenneth Bae's two years in a North Korean labor camp

[As Heard in North Korea]
Unification Media Group  |  2017-11-09 16:56

Daily NK and Unification Media Group will be interviewing victims of abuses and broadcasting excerpts of the recorded testimonies to listeners in North Korea as part of broader efforts to support the Center for Investigation & Documentation on Human Rights in North Korea (established in November 2016 pursuant to South Korea's North Korean Human Rights Act). It is hoped that this will raise awareness among the North Korean population that the outside world stands in solidarity against their oppression, as well as serve as a warning to the perpetrators that they will one day be held accountable.

Unification Media Group (UMG): Today we are going to speak to a foreigner who was detained by the North Korean regime. His name is Kenneth Bae, and he joins us here today in the studio. Thanks for coming in today to speak with us. First Id like to ask, do you consider yourself to be Korean or American?
 
Kenneth Bae (Bae): I was born in Seoul, South Korea. My Korean name is Bae Jun ho. When I was 17 years old in 1985, I migrated to America. My mother and my sister are in America, while my immediate family lives in Korea.
 
UMG: So you consider yourself to be Korean American. When were you arrested by the North Korean authorities?
 
Bae: I visited Rason, North Korea on November 3, 2012 and was detained for two years and five days. I was released on November 8, 2014.
 
UMG: Why were you detained by the North Korean authorities?
 
Bae: I was managing a travel agency at the time and was helping Western tourists visit North Korea. The North Korean authorities apprehended me on charges of subversion. I was interrogated and sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp. The authorities had a problem with the fact that I brought tourists in and was engaging in prayer and leading them in worship.
 
UMG: Can you provide more details on that aspect?
 
Bae: From the perspective of the international community, there is nothing unusual or problematic about a foreigner travelling to another country and praying. Up until that point, even the North Korean authorities didnt have a problem with it. But, suddenly the authorities took issue with the content of the prayer and asked if I was plotting to destroy the regime. So I was arrested on conspiracy of subverting the government.
 
UMG: Did the prayers really contain such content?
 
Bae: I didnt give them any instructions on the content of the prayers, so I dont know what kind of prayer they were saying. But some were praying that people in North Korea would become more free, be able to live like people, and escape the binds of poverty.
 
UMG: What kind of punishment did you receive?
 
Bae: I was sentenced to 15 years in a correctional labor camp, but was released after 2 years.
 
UMG: So even though you didnt try to directly influence North Korean residents, you were still given a harsh sentence. What was your life in prison like on a daily basis?
 
Bae: I was interned in a labor camp for foreigners, which I believe is different from the training camps that ordinary North Koreans are sent to. I assume that the daily tasks, however, might be similar. For six days a week, we woke up at six am and forced to do physical labor for ten hours. This included farming, carrying rocks, smashing cinder blocks, and digging ditches. We were permitted to rest in our rooms one day per week.
 
UMG: That must have been painful. During the interrogation process, did the authorities threaten or mistreat you?
 
Bae: There were many intimidating statements made during the month of my interrogation by the Ministry of State Security officials in Rason. I was not physically beaten by them, but for the first few days they only let me sleep for two to three hours and then they would make me kneel or stand up straight so I couldnt fall asleep. I was given about of the normal ration of food, so I was hungry and exhausted when they interrogated me. This was deliberate.  
 
When it came to threats, if I didnt cooperate they said that I could be treated as a war criminal and dealt with swiftly. It was their way of getting me to admit things. Through this kind of mental stress and punishment, there were physical effects.
 
UMG: How did you feel after you learned that you had been sentenced to 15 years?
 
Bae: There was some talk that I might be found in violation of Article 60 of the criminal code and either executed or imprisoned for life. So when I heard that I got 15 years in a labor camp, I was actually relieved at first. This is the second most severe penalty, behind life imprisonment. I was the first American to be sent to a kyohawso (correctional labor camp). Initially, I was holding out hope that the American government might come to negotiate for my release, but I ended up actually going to the prison camp.
 
The officials who interrogated me told me that the number of years on my sentence didnt matter as much as the behavior of the American government. This led me to believe that the North Korean government was going to use me as a bargaining chip in negotiations. Because of this, I thought I might be released quickly, but it ended up taking two years.  
 
UMG: You had quite an intense showdown with the North Korean authorities. I imagine this caused a great deal of stress.

Bae: The hardest thing to endure was the mental stress caused by the fact that I had no idea when or if Id be released to see my family. I spent the days in severe loneliness. I endured it one day at a time by reading letters from home and looking at pictures of my family.
 
The North Korean inspector who handled my case came to see me every Saturday for the latter year of my detention. He psychologically pressured me by saying things like, Youre not going home. Nobody remembers you. Even the American government has cast you aside. They threatened me like this right up until the American envoy came.
 
UMG: Just a few months ago, American Citizen Otto Warmbier suffered a brain injury and subsequently died after being released from North Korean captivity. Why do you think that things deteriorated like that for Mr. Warmbier?
 
Bae: I can only make assumptions, but we do know that Otto Warmbier was a 21-year-old American university student. He went to North Korea out of simple curiosity, not for any religious reasons. He was sentenced, just like me, to 15 years of imprisonment for the same crime of attempting to topple the North Korean government.
 
If I were to guess, I might say that his condition might have come about from panic-induced stress. He couldnt even speak Korean and was being charged with attempting to overthrow the government. Can you imagine how it would feel to be sent to a prison camp for 15 years? Perhaps the stress became too extreme, affecting his breathing or other vital functions.
 
I made enquiries with some analysts in South Korea who came up with two possible scenarios to explain it. First, physical trauma to the head or chest could, if left untreated, lead to brain damage. Second, Mr. Warmbier might have, for whatever reason, suffered cardiac arrest and then, perhaps because of stress-related breathing problems, the complications could have become compounded.
 
UMG: Why do you think the North Korean authorities have historically held foreigners as captives in this fashion?
 
Bae: Its been something theyve been doing repeatedly for the past ten years. In particular, its been happening quite a bit to American nationals. I believe its a form of hostage diplomacy to use these captives as bargaining chips in negotiations. I think Americans are taken captive whenever there is some sort of incident between the two countries. When I was taken in, North Korea had just conducted their 3rd nuclear test. After Warmbier was taken in, the country conducted its 4th nuclear test. Having a captive during such times increases North Koreas negotiating power. The North Korean authorities know that America will pay any price to rescue its own citizens. They use this knowledge to their advantage.       
Thank you, Mr. Bae, for offering your testimony.
 
UMG: Weve now set aside some time to speak to an expert about the legal ramifications of detaining foreign nationals in the way that North Korea has done repeatedly. To do so, were joined by Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Law School Professor Cho Jeong Hyeon. Hello, professor, thanks for joining us. Can you tell us about the legal aspects related to the Kenneth Bae case?
 
Cho Jeong Hyeon (Cho): First of all, its possible to view Mr. Baes situation and say that the legal procedures were followed in determining Mr. Baes guilt and sentencing him according to North Korean law.
 
However, the fact that Mr. Bae was accused of trying to topple the government and given such an outlandish punishment because he committed the very minor error of being a foreigner and praying is not something that we would usually expect to see in a democracy. Its therefore reasonable to claim that Mr. Bae was a political prisoner. This punishment would never be acceptable by international standards.
 
Moreover, North Korea has guaranteed the right to freedom of religion in its constitution and through various international human rights agreements that it is party to.

During his interrogation, Mr Bae was subjected to different kinds of threats and pressure that are banned in many countries. The possibility is high that his rights were violated, a clear transgression of international law.   
 
Kenneth Baes case amounts to arbitrary detention. The detention was part and parcel of the North Korean authorities policy. That means that the case could be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a human rights violation.
 
UMG: Arbitrary detention means that Mr. Bae was detained on undisclosed grounds.  
 
Cho: Personal liberty is a fundamental human right. Detaining someone therefore requires substantive legal grounds. North Koreas application of domestic criminal law is extremely lacking along these lines when we compare it to international standards.
 
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2017.11.06
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