PYONGYANG — An American missionary sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea has been suddenly set free by North Korean officials and is on his way back to the United States, government representatives confirm.
As previously reported, Kenneth Bae, who operates a tourist company in Washington state, was arrested not far from the city of Yanji in November 2012, where some Christian groups provide aid to North Korean refugees. It is stated that Bae has made a number of trips to North Korea to assist orphaned children.
“The most plausible scenario I can think of is that he took some pictures of the orphans, and the North Korean authorities considered that an act of anti-North Korean propaganda,” said Do Hee-youn of the Citizens’ Coalition for the Human Rights of North Korean Refugees.
Others opine that perhaps he took photographs of prisoners being executed or other similar human rights concerns. One report claims that Bae was found with a disc that had potentially sensitive information.
While the exact reason for his charges of committing “hostile [and religious] acts to bring down the government” has not been made known, Bae was sentenced to 15 years hard labor. He has appeared in several video statements since his sentencing, including earlier this year when he called upon the American government in a North Korean press conference to “make more active efforts and pay more attention” to his plight.
A video released by CNN last August showed Bae allegedly admitting to violating North Korean law, but some have been skeptical about the admission.
“There were preliminaries for three months. I wrote a statement that I violated the law upon entry to Rajin city. During the preliminaries, I admitted to this fact so I didn’t feel the need to choose a lawyer to defend my case at the trial,” he stated in the video. “I know that what I did cannot be forgiven, but my wish is for this to be solved as soon as possible and meet my family.”
According to reports, Bae has been working eight-hour days in the fields, weeding and planting beans and potatoes. In a video released in February, Bae stated that he was concerned about his health.
“I’ve been going back and forth between the hospital and to the labor camp for the last year and a half,” he also outlined during an interview with CNN in September. “My hands are numb and tingling, and it’s difficult sleeping at night, and I [have been] working in the field every day.”
Barack Obama and his administration have issued several statements calling for Bae’s release over the past two years, and representatives from the Swedish Embassy, which works on behalf of American interests in North Korea, have visited Bae over a dozen times at the labor camp since his sentencing.
Reports credit Bae’s release to a recent trip to North Korea by U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who served as an envoy of Obama. During his visit, Clapper requested Bae’s release, as well as that of American citizen Matthew Miller. Both are now on their way back to the United States and will be reunited with their families.
“We are grateful to director of national intelligence Clapper, who engaged on behalf of the United States in discussions with DPRK authorities about the release of two citizens,” the State Department wrote in a statement on Saturday.“We also want to thank our international partners, especially our protecting power, the government of Sweden, for their tireless efforts to help secure the freedom of Mr. Bae and Mr. Miller.”