HUNTSVILLE, Texas — At face value, Kenneth Bae is a 45-year-old American citizen born in South Korea, who moved to Lynnwood, Washington with his parents at the age of 16.
But underneath – he’s much more. So who exactly is Kenneth Bae?
The answer is different, depending on the source.
To his sister Terri Chung, Kenneth has a good head on his shoulders. He “is the guy who always does the right thing, no matter the cost. He is the guy who dropped out of college at the age of 22 to support his own young family. He is the guy who would come home late from working two jobs and just spend hours watching his baby son sleep. He is the guy who follows his personal convictions, even to the ends of the world.”
To many Chinese citizens, Bae is the creator of Nations Tour, a tour company that specializes in tours of North Korea.
The Nations Tour webpage that has long been removed formerly stated this in the about section: “We found ourselves falling in love with the friendly people…and fascinating culture… After realizing this love was something that needed to be shared with as many people possible, we developed Nation Tours so that others could fall in love with North Korea, too.”
“Kenneth saw an opportunity that combined his entrepreneurial spirit with his personal convictions as a Christian,” the website said. “He believed in showing compassion to the North Korean people by contributing to their economy in the form of tourism.”
His passion transcended his career. A devout Christian, Bae thought he could help suffering North Koreans by leading a tour into the special economic zones that would expose the horrible conditions.
“What we know is that he is a person who wants to help poor children, kotjebis (homeless children), and he took pictures of them to support them later,” Do Hee-youn, a North Korean human rights activist and head of the Citizens’ Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean refugees told NBC News in December.
To North Korean officials, like Kim Jong-Un, Bae is an enemy of the republic.
On 3 November 2012, Bae’s aspirations were halted when he was stopped in Rajin-Sonbon, a port city in the region of Rason with a thriving underground Christian missionary presence. According to officials, Bae was in possession of items that could be seen as inspiring “hostile acts against the republic.”
What was his contraband propaganda? A computer disk, whose contents included photos of starving North Korean orphans and a National Geographic documentary on the DPRK.
“When last in America and South Korea, Kenneth Bae went to several churches and preached about the need for North Korea’s immediate collapse,” a government spokesman said, suggesting that Bae was creating an “anti-government coalition” with other Christian missionaries.
Eugene Cho, the pastor of Quest Church who has been counseling Bae’s family during his imprisonment, states that Bae “was charged – in essence – for being a Christian.” “He was charged for taking his faith in Christ to heart. He was found guilty of wanting to share God’s love with those in North Korea,” Cho wrote.
Sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for his crime, Bae is the first American citizen to be detained for this long and sent to a labor camp. Despite efforts made to negotiate his release, North Korea holds firm to their decision and says that Bae will not be released early.
“I cannot interfere into the legal system,” said Hyun Hak-bong, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. “When the judgement is done, then it is done.
“Sometimes there’s occasions for a pardon but I don’t know and I cannot predict that Kenneth Bae will be pardoned or not. He should finish his term – that is all – according to crimes against DPR [Democratic People’s Republic of] Korea.”
Despite claims of horrible, violent conditions in North Korean labor camps, Bae denies any bad treatment.
Still, his family worries about him.
“In his eyes, I could see that he was distressed [during the conference],” sister Terri Chung said.
Since his sentencing in April 2013, Bae has lost 50 pounds. He also suffers from diabetes and severe leg and back pain. Due to his deteriorating health, he has been transferred to a hospital.
Family members anxiously await a negotiation for early release despite past struggles.
“All I know is that my brother is a good man,” Chung told CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan in July. “He’s an idealist, and a man of strong convictions, and he may have been maybe a little overzealous, and maybe made some wrong choices,” she added.
“I want to be pardoned by the North as soon as possible and return to my beloved family,” Bae told journalists. “For that, I ask the U.S. government, press and my family to make more active efforts and pay more attention.”