After a year in the North Korean prison, Kenneth Bae softened toward his guards.
“There were many small conversations like, 'How much do you make in the United States? What's it like to live in the U.S.?” Bae told KUOW’s Kim Malcolm. “Do people really have houses and cars?”
When he told his captors about life in America, the guards were shocked.
“They said, ‘No way. No way most common people can live like that,’” he said. “They were told that 1 percent of people in the United States have everything, and the rest of them are living in poverty. And this is what they were told throughout their lifetime."
In 2013, Bae, a missionary, was convicted of trying to overthrow the North Korean government. The Lynnwood man was sentenced to 15 years hard labor. He was released after two years – the longest stretch any American has spent in a North Korean prison since the Korean War.
When the guards were in public they called Bae by his prison number – 103. But in private, they called him pastor. Bae is an ordained Southern Baptist minister.
“People opened up quite a bit and one by one they're coming to me and saying, 'Pastor, can I talk to you?'" Bae recalled.
"And then they're talking about their marriage problems and parenting issues. So I ended up doing quite a bit of counseling and sitting down and talking and chatting. And I became kind of like a friend to them."
They began to see him as concerned for them – and other North Koreans.
"They realized that I wasn't CIA, I wasn't there really trying to overthrow the government,” he said. “I was a missionary who was sent there to love people, love God, even in the midst of the prison."
Bae was born in South Korea, but his family hails from North Korea.
He was arrested after entering North Korea from China – where he lived – with a group of tourists.
"I felt compassion for the people of North Korea,” he said. “I wanted to see is there anything I can do to help their economy and at the same time let the world know what it's really like to live in North Korea?
"I made a very honest mistake by carrying in an external, portable hard drive that contained some anti-North Korean footage from the Western media. And they accused me of attempting to overthrow the government.”
He said the prosecutors were most concerned about his prayer.
Bae asked them, “You don't even believe in God; why do you believe in prayer?’ That's what I said to them. And I said, 'Why do you think the prayer is so threatening to you?'”
They worried he had come to pray against North Korea, “so that we come crumbling down.”
“They literally took the prayer as a powerful weapon against them," he said.
Bae credits his release in part to former NBA star Dennis Rodman. Rodman was visiting North Korea for an exhibition game with other NBA players.
"A couple of weeks later, a prosecutor came to me and he was very upset,” Bae said. “It turned out that Dennis Rodman made a remark while doing an interview on CNN, and that led the reaction of the public and important figures.”
(Bae thanked Rodman on CNN last week for helping bring attention to his case.)
He said his experience taught him to truly appreciate freedom.
"This is the first time I truly valued how precious freedom is. And it's because of this experience that I realized what we have in the United States is so precious; freedom to speak, freedom to demonstrate our faith, and it's so important."
Bae said he hopes to go back to North Korea one day and see his captors. “I consider some of them as friends," he said.