Kenneth Bae shares experience with the North Korean people in UMG broadcast

Kenneth Bae with Unification Media Group staff members at the consortium’s Seoul-based studio.
Image: Daily NK

Unification Media Group: Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary and US citizen,
spent 735 days in a North Korean prison before being released in 2014. He
originally received a sentence of 15 years hard labor on charges of attempting
to overthrow the government. Mr. Bae recently sat down with Daily NK and
Unification Media Group in Seoul to shed light on his experiences in the North.
Below is a transcript of the interview, which has been edited for clarity.

Thank you for visiting Unification Media Group. Please start
off by introducing yourself to our listeners in North Korea.

Kenneth Bae:Hello, everyone. My name is Kenneth Bae. About 30 years ago,
I emigrated from South Korea to the US, and had been working as a missionary in
China and North Korea prior to my detainment there for roughly two years.

I heard you had spent six years doing missionary work for
North Korea before being detained. How did you become interested in this? 

I think I was influenced by my father, whose hometown is
Yongbyon in North Pyongan Province. When I was young and the family would get
together, people would use dialect from that area, and I think that piqued my
interest about North Korea. Also, when I was studying at a seminary in the US,
I heard about the ‘Arduous March’ (famine of the mid 1990s) and the difficult
times people in the North had to go through and that really broke my heart. I
had thought ‘I would like to be of help to those people’ if I have the
opportunity, and in 2005, I had the chance to meet North Koreans who were
visiting their relatives in China on private travel permits. Despite the
difficult times, they were still steadfast (in their beliefs) and explained
they had first become religious during the mass famine. So I asked them what it
meant to them, and they said, “We had no hope in life before, but now we do.”
After hearing that, I thought, ‘What can I do to help?’ and that’s how I
started my missionary work.

Before November 2012, you had been to North Korea 17 times
but were never detained. What happened during your 18th trip?

I was running a tour company (to hide the fact that I was a
missionary). Through this company, I would bring people in from other countries
and introduce them to locations that exemplified North Korea’s natural beauty
and local culture. But on my 18th trip, I mistakenly took an external hard
drive with me that contained videos exposing the reality in the North. That
hard drive was picked up in a security check, and I was detained as a result.

For people outside of the North, they wouldn’t consider the
materials related to your missionary work and the videos on the North
dangerous. Why do you think you were charged with ‘hostile criminal acts
against the Republic’?

The videos on the hard drive were reports from Western media
on North Korea. First, the authorities raised issues about the videos saying
they were ‘subversive material’ that would convey distorted facts about the
North to people in the West. But what was more problematic were the photos that
were also on that hard drive that were taken over the six years I spent in
China and North Korea doing missionary work. They were able to determine that I
was a missionary and had come to the North (not as the head of a tour company)
to proselytize, so I was accused of plotting to overthrow the government. 

The North accused you of a political crime. When North
Koreans are accused of political crimes and face preliminary hearings, they are
locked up in underground rooms by the Ministry of State Security and experience
all kinds of torture. Were you also tortured?

No. In the first few days, they did keep me sleep deprived,
or had me stand in one part of the room all day, or make me kneel on the floor
for a number of hours. But there was nothing that I would consider a brutal
violation of human rights. I didn’t go through anything like torture. 

Image: Daily NK

It’s a hard question to ask, but how did you feel during
your time of incarceration?

I had brought a lot of foreign tourists to North Korea, met
a lot of people in the North, and won over their hearts. I also thought I had
helped the North Korean economy. But in the end, I didn’t know what to think of
it, as I was imprisoned and received a sentence of 15 years of hard labor. Soon
enough, though, I was able to find resolve. Instead of blaming the fact that I
was in prison, I thought I should do my best at whatever I could in that place.
I comforted myself with my religion and my role as a missionary and tried to do
my best each day.

The families of North Koreans charged with political crimes
are not told about the whereabouts of the accused while they undergo their
preliminary hearing. The accused, in effect, become a missing person. How about
your family? Did they hear about your detainment during the preliminary

During the first month, I wasn’t able to have any exchanges.
Later, when I was transferred to Pyongyang to undergo the preliminary hearing,
I was given permission to send a letter to my family to let them know I was
being detained. I was allowed by the state to write letters and call my family
once or twice to receive help from the U.S. government. But when this happened,
the authorities told me what to write or say and made it so that I asked the
‘U.S. government to do everything in its power’ and added in personal stories
in these letters.

You’ve experienced North Korea’s justice system firsthand.
How did you feel it was different from that of the U.S.?

I haven’t really been to a court in the U.S., so I’m
unfamiliar with the details. But there were some parts that did make me wonder.
I went through a preliminary hearing, but then I was told I would be able to
hire a lawyer following that. When I asked whether I would be able to meet my
lawyer in person, they said it was impossible. In the U.S., a lawyer is present
during the interrogation and talks to the client to prepare for their defense.

So I asked to be able to meet my lawyer, and I was told I
would see my lawyer on the day of the trial in court. I consequently
immediately refused to hire a lawyer and said I would represent myself. Another
thing is in the U.S. or other Western countries, it usually takes anywhere from
a few days to a few months for a trial, a pretty significant amount of time.
But in the North, there’s one trial and everything is concluded within an hour
and a half, so that was another part that raised doubts on my part.

You became the first American to be sent to a labor
reeducation camp in the North after the Korean War. You were known to have been
sent to a special labor camp for foreigners. Did the state authorities tell you

That’s right. Initially I wasn’t aware of this until I
arrived at the reeducation camp. I thought I was just going to a regular labor
camp that others went to. But when I got there, they said it was a special camp
for foreigners, and the atmosphere there was quite different from what I expected
of regular reeducation camps.

Do you remember where it was? What was the surrounding
environment like?

It was on the outskirts of Pyongyang. While I was being
transported the windows were all covered, so I couldn’t tell exactly where I
was. But it was about 20 to 30 minutes away from the central area of Pyongyang.
I couldn’t see outside of the window while I was being transported there, so I
don’t know about the scenery outside. 

North Koreans who are imprisoned in reeducation camps are
usually given thin broth and cornmeal mixed in with rice, so they often get ill
of malnutrition or die. Did you get three meals a day, how much food was it,
and what kind of side dishes were provided?

The guards did imply that I was receiving special treatment
compared to North Koreans. I had three meals a day. Two meals were rice and one
was cornmeal noodles. Especially in the first one or two months, the side
dishes were pretty okay. For example, there was fish, pork, and some eggs
sometimes, so it seemed they were treating me better because I was American.
But in the winter, things changed a bit. It seemed they didn’t have enough
ingredients, so I would get two or three types of pickled dishes and rice and
broth. From then, the food got pretty bad and because of the amount of labor I
was doing, I lost a lot of weight. I actually lost about 27 kg.

Were you sick at any point?

I already had some chronic health problems. There were some
problems with my hands and back, and I had a few other conditions, so
physically, it was pretty hard to get by. Eventually, I was diagnosed with
malnutrition and sent to the hospital. It was a special hospital for
foreigners, so the facilities were not bad, and I was able to eat meals
prepared for foreigners. There wasn’t any treatment in particular, but I did
get an IV drip to help me regain stability.

If you’re a political prisoner in North Korea, you can never
get out of such a completely controlled area until you die. As a foreigner,
luckily you were able to get out after spending a long two years. Do you think
you were released because North Korea saw you as a bargaining chip with the

In the beginning, the reason why I acknowledged the things
that I did is because the authorities there convinced me that if I admitted to
everything, they would send me home. But as time went by, I realized admitting
to things and apologizing was not the main issue. That’s because the state
would tell me my repatriation depended on ‘what the U.S. decides to do,’ so I
came to realize they saw me as a negotiating tool they could use with

Did you pray while you were in the prison camp?

Yes. One of the privileges you have as a foreigner in the
reeducation camp is that they allow you to engage in religious activities. I
had a bible written in Korean and English and also had a book of hymns.

You’ve said there were some 30 prison guards at the special
reeducation camp. Did you feel there was a wall separating you from them?

Yes. North Koreans are different from people in the outside
world and live in a world of their own, so inevitably there was a wall between
us when it came to communicating. They didn’t understand the things that I was
saying, and I couldn’t accept the things they were saying. As you know, in the North,
people attribute their values to the suryong, Kim Il Sung and juche ideology
are the foundation of society, so while talking to people brainwashed by those
values, I felt an ‘invisible wall’ was between us. But as time went by, people
opened up, and we were able to have some sincere conversations, so I did see
some parts of that wall come down.

Were there any guards that were particularly memorable? 

Yes. There were a lot, but there was one guard that stood
out. He was initially very strict. Even as I was working, if I didn’t work hard
enough he pointed it out and always said that everything needs to meet his
standards. He was also full of confidence and said because North Korea has
great military power, it will prevail over any country it gets into a fight

But after a few months of making things so difficult for me,
he became very friendly and was good to me. I think he knew that I wasn’t from
an American intelligence agency and that I hadn’t come to overthrow the
leadership and was just a regular missionary. When it was time to say goodbye
he said, “It would have been so nice to not have met this way. Wouldn’t it have
been good to be able to have a meal and drink together?”

Did you get the impression that the prison guards were not
very aware of what is going on outside the country?

That’s not just the prison guards. Because people in the
North have their lives controlled by the state, it seems that very few are
aware of what is going on outside of the country. When the prison guards heard
of things happening elsewhere, they would be very surprised and say they
couldn’t believe it. One case in point would be when I told them that the UN secretary-general
was a South Korean named Ban Ki-moon, and they would say things like, ‘I can’t
believe it. How could a South Korean who lives under America’s colonial rule
become the UN secretary-general? It doesn’t make any sense.’ Also, when I told
them that South Korea’s economy is 40 times the size of North Korea’s they
would say ‘A lot of people there starve to death. It’s only 1% of the
population that is well off, so how is that possible?’ From things like this, I
could really tell just how restricted their lives are and how cut off they are
from the rest of the world.

So you probably have thought about the importance of getting
information from outside of the country into North Korea.

Yes, that’s right. People who live elsewhere have a lot of
freedom, and I think the most important is the right to information. People
should be able to enjoy the freedom to choose what they want to learn about
instead of receiving it all from one restricted medium so they can understand
what kind of things are happening and how things work in the world outside.
This is normal for most people living outside of North Korea, so it saddens me
that even such normal things are not possible in the North. If they’re able to
read about and listen to things freely, they can make decisions for themselves,
and I think their lives would be different and richer. 

You were incarcerated for two years for trying to help
people in North Korea. Has this experience changed the way you think about the

I don’t think I view anything in a more negative light.
Because I was there for two years, during the 735 days that I was there, I
spent time with people in the North and was able to get a better idea of their
reality. I also got to see with my own eyes how difficult things are for them.
In the midst of that, I saw diligent hardworking people who were trying to get
by in that difficult process. A lot of people were also trying their best to be
loyal to the Party and state, and watching that, it drew me closer to them. If
one day the South and North are reunified, wouldn’t it be great if we could all
live together and move forward as one nation? This has become one of my
greatest hopes.

So your imprisonment has made you want to work harder as a

That’s right. It made me really want to let them know about
religion even to the smallest degree and that so many people (around the world)
are praying for them and have great interest in them.

I heard you still want to do work to help people in the
North. What kind of plans do you have?

I’ve come home from the North, but my thoughts are still
there. When I was in the reeducation camp, I told the North Korean cadre, “If
you let me out soon, I’d like to come back soon.” I told them when I come back
I’d like to be not someone that threatens the regime but someone who opens the
‘path to benediction.’ Also, right now in the South there are North Koreans who
escaped the country because of all kinds of difficulties. I would like to be a
gateway to support them, so I’m working on ways to help them get through
difficulties in life so they don’t lose their courage. 

As we close, do you have a message that you would like to
share with the people of North Korea through Unification Media Group?

During the two years that I was in prison, I received a lot
of letters from many people around the world. I got about 450 letters. In the
midst of everything I was able to know that a lot of people still are thinking
of me, have not forgotten me, and are praying for me. That gave me a lot of
strength and courage.

When I returned to the free world, so many people from
countries around the world so happily welcomed my return. I met a lot of people
who told me they had prayed for me. I realized deep down inside that so many
people had not forgotten about me. I would like to also share this with our
listeners in North Korea. People outside of North Korea care about you, they
have not forgotten you, and they will remember you. I hope you will understand
this and also recognize it.

Even in this moment, a lot of people want to share the
difficulties that you’re going through with great care and interest. We hope to
further support the North Korean people.

So I hope that we will someday see the South and North
reunify, and peace and harmony with overseas Koreans and people all across the
world. I am hopeful for the day when instead of pointing guns at each other,
we’re able to understand each other.

Until then, I ask that you stay strong in your beliefs and
hold onto your hopes. Please do not forget that so many people around the world
care about you, worry about you, and are always thinking of you. 

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