A U.S. missionary who was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in North Korea, and served in a labor camp for two years before ultimately being freed, is speaking out about his experience and how his missionary work was deemed a “threat” to the atheist government.
“They (the prosecutors) said, ‘You attempted to overthrow the government through prayer and worship’ and they really took prayer as a weapon against them,” Kenneth Bae told CBS News this past week.
“One of the prosecutors told me that I was the worst, most dangerous American criminal they had ever apprehended since the Korean War,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Why?’ and they said, ‘Because not only [did you come] to do mission work on your own, you asked others to join.’”
As previously reported, Bae was born in South Korea, but now lives in Washington as an American citizen, and manages a tourist company that takes trips to North Korea—many of which are Christian-based. Over a dozen of those trips had been made without issue.
However, during a tour in November 2012, Bae was taken into custody and was accused of attempting to overthrow the government. He was arrested not far from the city of Yanji, where some Christian groups provide aid to North Korean refugees.
He was sentenced to 15 years hard labor, and became the first American to receive such a sentence in the nation. Bae struggled with his health while being forced to work at a labor camp.
“I’ve been going back and forth between hospital and to the labor camp for the last year and a half,” Bae told CNN in 2014 while still in the custody of the North Korean government. “My hands are numb and tingling, and it’s difficult sleeping at night, and I was working in the field every day.”
He was visited by representatives from the Swedish embassy during his time of detention, and U.S. officials also called for his release on several occasions.
Bae said that what ultimately got him in trouble was a computer hard drive that he possessed that contained prayers to God, as well as photographs of impoverished North Korean children. Officials accused him of being a spy and placed him on trial.
He recalled the hard labor that he served in the country, working long hours in the fields.
“I had to work from 8 o’clock in the morning to 6 o’clock at night, six day weeks—working on the field, doing farming labor, carrying rock and shoveling coal,” Bae said. “All of those things were physically demanding and very difficult.”
He outlined that he was also barraged with negative comments, as one prosecutor disparaged on a weekly basis, “No one remembers you. You have been forgotten by people, your government. You’re not going home anytime soon. You’ll be here for 15 years. You’ll be 60 before you go home.”
But Bae took his difficulties in stride and told CNN on Monday that he spent his days “depending on God and pretty much living day to day—just one day at a time.” He trusted that God would be his rescuer, and held onto the promises of Scripture.
“I [would look] in the mirror in the bathroom every day, and say, ‘Remember, you are a missionary. This is what you are here for,'” Bae also told CBS, referring to his mission to share Christ with the lost. “I took it more as a blessing, rather than a curse or suffering.”
The missionary was ultimately pardoned by Kim Jong Un 735 days after his arrest.
“I’m thankful every day and grateful for so many people that were involved in trying to get me home,” Bae told reporters. “735 days in North Korea was long enough. But I’m thankful.”
He said that he is not bitter at the North Korean government, but rather sees his time as an opportunity to share his faith.
“I was just there to love the people, let people know that God cares about them and the rest of the world cares about them,” Bae explained.
He urges the Body of Christ not to forget about North Korean Christians in their suffering.