Kenneth Bae, an American man from Lynnwood, Wash., has spent more than nine months imprisoned in North Korea. That’s longer than any other American recently held there. Bae’s family members say their frustration and worries grow as each day passes.
While the United States has called for Bae’s immediate release, North Korean scholar Charles Armstrong explains part of the dilemma for US officials dealing with the situation.
“They don’t want to encourage this type of behavior from North Korea,” said Armstrong, professor of Korean studies at Columbia University and director of the school’s Center for Korean Research. “They don’t want to be seen as giving in to pressure from the North Korean government, but there's also a strong humanitarian interest in getting an American citizen released.”
Since 2009, North Korea has detained at least six Americans then released them only after visits from prominent US dignitaries. Armstrong suspects that’s what the reclusive Asian regime is after.
Yet any diplomacy happening behind the scenes offers little comfort to Bae’s family. His parents, sister, children and wife just want him to come home.
“At the beginning, I thought there was some misunderstanding when North Korea arrested him, and they will release him,” said Bae's mother, Myunghee Bae, at her suburban Lynnwood home. At her side is Terri Chung, his younger sister. Family photos hang neatly on the wall behind them.
With a smile, Chung remembers some silly times when she and her brother were kids. “We would have these just random taekwondo demonstrations on the lawn, just because,” Chung said. “You know, this was the 'Karate Kid' era.”
That was in the mid '80s after the Bae family moved from South Korea to California, then later to the Seattle area. Now, Kenneth Bae and his sister are in their 40s and life is nothing like they ever imagined as kids.
“For a long time, because of the sensitive nature, we couldn’t really talk about it publicly,” Chung said. “So it felt like I was just leading this double life, like I was starring in some third-rate spy movie or something – you don’t know who to trust, who you should talk to.”
Based out of China since 2006, Kenneth Bae traveled frequently to North Korea as a tour operator and Christian missionary. In November he was arrested then later convicted of "hostile acts" against the North Korean government. Details about his alleged crimes are still unclear.
“All I know is my brother is a good man,” Chung said. “He has a huge heart to help people in the nation of North Korea. He is religious, and his religious convictions may have been overzealous and may have been deemed and seen as hostile against the state.”
Every Wednesday, Chung and her mother get together for a weekly phone call with the US Department of State. Officials assure them they’re working back channels and actively handling the case, yet week after week the situation appears unchanged.
Chung says they try to stay hopeful through the dark moments. One of the darkest came in May, when CNN aired a video of Kenneth in prison. He appears in a stained prison uniform, his eyes downcast and tearful.
“He looks so sad and panicked,” Myunghee Bae said. "He’s not my son I remember. He looks totally broken. It’s the worst moment of my life.”
It's hard for Chung to hear her mother talk that way.
“You know, my mom — she’s just been my rock," Chung said. "Then, to hear her break into these heaving sobs, just gut-wrenching sound of pure pain and anguish. I’ll never forget.”
From the video, Myunghee Bae noticed her son had lost a lot of weight. He's since told her that his health is failing, possibly from diabetes-related complications.
In recent months, Kenneth Bae has been able to call home four times and send several letters. Myunghee Bae delicately unfolds the most recent letter, postmarked in Pyongyang on June 22. Her son’s handwriting, in Korean, goes on for two pages:
My beloved mother. Thank you for the letter you sent. Don’t worry too much about me. I know you were worried about the sunscreen. I go outside with a hat on and I have a towel around my neck. I’m drinking plenty of water. So please don’t worry too much about me. I’m having ailments. The doctor says it’s stress-related. My hand is numb. My back and neck are not in good condition. But day-to-day I’m really trying to bear it here.
Myunghee Bae struggles with letters to her son, saying it’s tough to keep telling him there’s been no progress. When words fail her, she clips Bible verses and news stories to send along.
In Kenneth Bae's letters home and the video, Chung and her mother both hear a consistent message: He needs help from the US government.
"Don't forget about this American," said Chung. "Please do what you can to bring him home."
For this family, life is on hold until that happens.
These days, Myunghee Bae spends more time alone in prayer or on her laptop scouring Asian news sites. Chung has taken a leave from her teaching job at a community college. Her job now is to fight for her brother’s release.
In July, speculation surfaced that former President Jimmy Carter was planning to help with Bae’s release. However, a Carter Center representative has since told the Bae family that Carter has no immediate plans to visit North Korea.
Chung says the longer this situation stretches on, the harder it is to hold on to hope.
“I believe the US government wants to see this American home,” Chung said. "But when it’s your family member, nothing is enough until he’s home.”
Bae's family has scheduled a public prayer vigil for 7:00 p.m. on Saturday at Quest Church in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood.
Two American journalists previously detained in North Korea, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, are also asking people to send letters of support to Bae. Those letters can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org