International Relations
9:27 am
Mon November 4, 2013

A Year Later, Kenneth Bae Remains Imprisoned In North Korea

It’s been a year since Kenneth Bae, a missionary who once hailed from Lynnwood, Wash., was arrested and imprisoned in North Korea. Over the weekend, his family quietly marked the anniversary of his arrest.

Bae’s younger sister, Terri Chung, said she remembers back before Bae's arrest on Nov. 3, 2012, to the last time he contacted her.

“It was last Halloween when my brother tried to call me,” Chung said.  “I was at a kids' gathering, and I missed his call.”

A few days later, Bae was arrested in North Korea.

Chung said her brother is always on her mind as she goes about her daily life. She recently returned to her teaching job at North Seattle Community College, after abruptly leaving last spring to deal with Bae’s case. She scaled back her work hours so that she has time to continue to contact diplomats, work with media and help her parents to cope. Bae’s parents still live in Lynnwood.

“It is very present, even now,” Chung said. “That it is 12 months later seems kind of unbelievable. How could we have gotten to this point? I don’t think anybody ever imagined it would take this long because no other cases have.”

Based out of China since 2006, Bae had visited North Korea several times as a tour operator. On this last trip, Chung said she suspects her brother’s Christian convictions may have landed him trouble.

North Korea ultimately convicted Bae of “hostile acts” against the government and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor. US officials have continued to press for his release, but Chung said her family’s weekly calls with the US State Department are often frustrating because there’s nothing new to report.

In October, North Korea allowed Bae's mother to visit him at a hospital where he was being treated for various chronic issues. Chung said her mom was relieved to see her son but was also pained by the clearer picture of his life in prison.

“To have spent those few days together, then to have to leave him behind, I think was just devastating for her,” Chung said. “Why couldn’t he just come back with her?”

Now that Bae’s health has improved, Chung says the family is worried he will be forced back to the labor camp where conditions are much harsher. Bae lost 50 pounds during the beginning of his imprisonment but gained back some weight while hospitalized.

During that recent visit, Bae showed his mother the letters he has received from about 150 supporters, which Chung says he cherishes.

“I guess once a week he pulls them all out and re-reads them again, just for that sense of connection to the outside world,” she said.

On the Web: Free Ken Now