How Ken Bae Went from North Korean Tour Operator to North Korean Prisoner

Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old American citizen, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in a North Korean gulag this week for "hostile acts" against the country and Kim Jong-Un's regime. Considering the DPRK's penchant for hyperbole and habit of punishing Americans, the truth about Bae's situation remains murky. Here's what we know so far.

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Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old American citizen, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in a North Korean gulag this week for "hostile acts" against the country and Kim Jong-Un's regime. Considering the DPRK's penchant for hyperbole and habit of punishing Americans, the truth about Bae's situation remains murky. Here's what we know so far:

Bae Dropped Out of the University of Oregon to Support His Family. "In the fall of 1988, Ken Bae, Bobby Lee and Dennis Kwon arrived on the campus of the University of Oregon in Eugene from South Korea," writes The Oregonian's Stuart Tomlinson. In the profile of Bae and his friends, we learn that they tutored disadvantaged students, were active in student groups, and helped Korean foreign exchange students. But Bae did not finish college:

In 1990, Kwon, now a Portland businessman, was Bae’s best man at his wedding. Bae would later drop out to work to support his family, earning 75 credits, before leaving school, university officials said.

Bae Owned a China-Based Tour Company That Specialized in North Korean Tours (Yes, Those Exist).  According to Tomlinson's piece, people said that Bae spent time in Washington State but was based in China in the city of Dalian. There, Bae was running a tourism company called Nations Tour.  The website for his company was taken down sometime last year, and NK News, a site which specializes on North Korean current events seems to have the only remnants of exactly he did. Nations Tour's "about" page read: 

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.

Tourism to North Korea according to North Korea's state-run news is actually booming (even with threats of nuclear war), and not just Dennis Rodman. There are actual sporting events, like a marathon, which draws competitors from all around the world. And there are reasons (adventure) why people may want to visit North Korea. But one of the reasons Korean-Americans go to the country, despite warnings from the State Department, is to help—that's right, missionary/humanitarian/relief operations.

Bae Might Have Been Helping and Photographing North Korean Children. "It is not uncommon, however, for Korean-Americans to run missionary operations in or around the Sino-North Korean border region," reports the team from NK News. They mention that on Bae's Facebook page (which has since been shut down) he had links to the Joseph Connection, an Ohio-based, not-for-profit Christian missionary program. "Kenneth is a personal friend, I’ve known him for about 3 years ... He does not work [for] The Joseph Connection," John Geissler, who runs the Joseph Connection, told NK News. "Nations Tours was a tour agency that I used to book my group into North Korea. It was a tour agency promoting cross-cultural experiences," he added.  We tried looking up the Joseph Connection based on its tax ID on file and could not find its tax filings or 990 forms online.

Though, Geissler makes it clear that Bae was not part of The Joseph Connection, Bae had a reputation for helping children. "What we know is that he [Bae] 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.

And to that, Rajin, the port city where Bae was arrested is also significant. Rajin is part of a region called Rason. "Rason borders China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where there already exists a thriving underground Christian missionary presence," Matt Reichel, director of the Pyongyang Project, told NK News. According to friends interviewed in Tomlinson's piece in The Oregonian, Bae was a "devout Christian."

But Bae Can't Get Arrested for Taking Pictures of Starving Children, Can He? According to the South Korean Kookmin Ilbo newspaper (via The New York Times), and unidentified source said that Bae was arrested after North Korean officials found a hard disk belonging to Bae which contained sensitive information about the Country. "Mr. Do said that Mr. Bae might have taken pictures of North Korean orphans he wanted to help and that the authorities might have seen that as an act of propaganda against the North," reported the New York Times's Choe Sang-Hun in December, and yes that the same Mr. Do, cited by NBC News.

But, according to an analysis by the AAFC/France-North Korea Friendship Association that doesn't make sense. Now, yes, this a pro-North Korea group based in France. But as North Korean expert Adam Cathcart explains, it's worth a read. "In any event, the following story amounts to a 'new source' with regard to the present case and at the very least should causes a rethink of whether or not Kenneth Bae will ever be seen again ..." Cathcart writes.

As Cathcart notes, read this with whatever lens you have, and remember keep your skepticism ready. Here are the three juiciest bits, the first explaining that the punishment doesn't fit the crime

If Bae’s goal was to help orphanages, doing so in conjunction with the North Korean authorities for the final delivery of aid, as other NGOs present in the country do, such pictures would then have been taken with the full knowledge of Bae’s North Korean guides. Never has such a situation before led to the arrest of a foreign visitor to North Korea. (Indeed, the heaviest sanction is that the pictures are erased at the request of the North Koreans.)

And perhaps hinting that the photos were taken in secret:

However, had the photos been taken in secret [prise en cachette], then they could have had a purpose other than humanitarian action. But a single snapshot usually does not justify taking the [extreme] measure of arresting the photographer: the penalty would be a simple expulsion, after the confiscation of equipment and the offending photos.

And finally, the timing of Bae's arrest. The narrative that's been thrown out was that Bae was arrested and parlayed into an international bargaining chip. The "Mr. Cheong" referred to is the AP's source on the subject, a military analyst based in South Korea. The AP's story has the timestamp of December 21 and the North Korean rocket launch happened on December 12:

The problem is that it does not coincide with the dates of the arrest of Mr. Bae on November 3, an event which occurred well before the announcement of the rocket Unha-3, an event which, Mr. Cheong takes after his government in asserting, will lead to new sanctions that will require the assent of China in the Security Council.

For Cheong's analysis to make sense, the AAFC argues, North Korea would have known, as it was arresting Bae that it was going to launch a rocket, start an international brouhaha, have a successful nuclear test, and then threaten nuclear war. Because North Korea is North Korea, that's not entirely out of the question. But it does put a curious wrinkle into the timeline of Bae's arrest and detainment.

The Timeline: What we need to keep in mind about Bae's arrest is that he's been in custody since last year and that there has already been one plan to at least meet with him. Let's have a look:

November 3, 2012: Bae is Arrested. 

December 12, 2012: North Korea announces rocket launch. 

December 21, 2012: North Korea announces that it has a U.S. prisoner in custody. 

January 3, 2013: The State Department issues a statement denouncing Richardson's trip to North Korea.

January 7, 2013: Bill Richardson and Google's Eric Schmidt arrive in North Korea. 

January 10, 2013: Richardson and Schmidt depart from North Korea. 

January 11, 2013: Reuters reports that Richardson was unable to meet with Bae, but that Richardson delivered a letter for Bae.

February 11-12, 2013: North Korea conducts their third nuclear test.

April 22, 2013- May 2, 2013:  Bae is sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp. State Department calls for Bae's immediate release.

For some perspective, we can look at the detainment of journalists  Euna Lee and Laura Ling—the two were detained on March 17, 2009. They were sentenced in June. And then pardoned in August of the same year. The period between Bae's arrest and sentencing is almost twice as long as Lee and Ling's, but then again Lee and Ling weren't detained in the middle of threats of nuclear war.

As we mentioned the State Department is fighting for Bae's immediate release. His friends and family have also created a Facebok page for Bae, with news updates about his status.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.