North Korea's U.S. Prisoner Was a Secret Missionary & That Won't Help an Escape

In meetings with the South Korean president Tuesday, President Obama surely asked about Kenneth Bae, the 44-year-old American sentenced to 15 years in a North Korean gulag. Here's a question worth asking: Now that it appears Bae was using his China-based tour agency as an undercover pipeline to sneak Christian followers into atheist North Korea, is it going to be even harder to get him out? Because Dennis Rodman's basketball diplomacy really isn't helping.

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In meetings with South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the White House today, President Obama and Vice President Biden surely asked about Kenneth Bae, the 44-year-old American sentenced to 15 years in a North Korean gulag, reportedly for taking photos of starving North Korean kids. Here's a question worth asking: Now that there's apparent evidence that Bae was using his China-based tour agency as a pipeline to sneak Christian followers into atheist North Korea, is it going to be even harder to get him out? Because Dennis Rodman's basketball diplomacy really isn't helping.

Gleaning information from Bae's thin digital trail, plus reports from the U.S. and South Korea, as well as state reports from North Korea, it's been difficult to put together a fuller portrait of Bae, other than that he ran a tour agency and got his hard drive full of photos taken into custody, along with himself. But now comes word that his sentencing seems oddly long, even given that Bae was apparently a religious missionary in a country that trusts religion about as much as it trusts the United States. Friends and family had described Bey as a "devout Christian," but according to James Pearson at NK News's James Pearson, the English-language site with some of the best North Korean coverage online, Bae was first sent to China in 2006 by an evangelical missionary group called Youth With a Mission.

During sermons in 2011, Bae apparently said that he was actively working with missionary teams in the region. "This year, I'm working at taking several short term missionary teams into North Korea," Bae told an unidentified Korean church in St. Louis December of 2011. "I knew that Jesus wanted me to be a 'channel' to the North," he said, according to NK News. And December of 2011 would have been around three months after Bae registered the domain of his company — Nations Tour, a tourist agency based in China — and began to advertise its specialized in trips to North Korea. And as NK News's Pearson notes, his first visit came in 2010. Bae had told the congregation:

I already had a cultural exchange company in China, and therefore already brought in many foreigners; guiding, feeding, and housing them. Many wanted to go and see North Korea too ... I therefore said I would create a 'Love Choson [North Korea] Tour' about loving people, loving culture, and loving nature. We did this, and saw where and how North Koreans live their lives.


I wondered, if more people could come and go freely, will the wall fall down more quickly? Wouldn’t it be good if prayers and worshipers could live and stay in that place? So I asked: ‘Can foreigners come as tourists?’ They said that the door had been open in Rajin and Sonbong [Rason] since last year.”

But tourism in North Korea isn't that easy, as anyone not named Dennis Rodman knows, and sometimes you have to say you're there doing something you're not. John Geissler told NK News about Bae's company last week, describing it as "a tour agency promoting cross-cultural experiences" which got him into the country. We now know that's not precisely true, but then again, Geissler himself said he had been in the country to build a laundry detergent startup — he's also one of the leaders of the Joseph's Connection Christian missionary program. So, yeah, you're not going to get a lot of answers on why and how Bae fell into the wrong hands from his undercover missionary buddies.

But there may be new answers about the charges: North Korean state media said this week (via CNN) that Bae entered the country "with a disguised identity" and that he "confessed and admitted his crimes." And while South Korean and human rights advocates say that Bae was actually being detained for photographing starving North Korean children, well running a Christian missionary program under the guise of a Chinese cultural tour company is something that fits both those reports. Indeed, it may mean he's in more — if different — trouble than we thought.

North Korea operates as an atheist state, and that's more of a precaution against anyone organizing against the regime — perhaps people like Bae. It will likely be key whether Bae is seen as a kind of evil religious figure, an anti-regime photographer, both, or neither. The North Korean constitution states: "No one may use religion as a means by which to drag in foreign powers or to destroy the state or social order." The Global Post points out that many Christians complain of unfair and extreme persecution in the country, while the AP adds this tidbit: "At least three other Americans detained in recent years also have been devout Christians."

Still, as NK News's Pearson reports, 15 years in a gulag seems a bit much, since Bae isn't the only missionary in the Roson area. "A 15 year sentence would therefore be particularly harsh given the large numbers of missionaries in the area," Pearson writes. "I don't think it had anything to do with the distribution of Bibles," NK News reports from an earlier in interview with Tony Namkung, the renowned North Korean fixer who accompanied Google's Eric Schmidt and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on their trip to Pyongyang earlier this year. That trip was very much unsuccessful for its diplomatic mission to help extract Bae, and there have been no big developments since Monday, when North Korea was holding strong against negotiations and dismissing American reports that Bae could be used as a political "bargaining chip."

Well, unless you consider this a big development:

At his joint press conference with the South Korean president in the Rose Garden Tuesday afternoon, President Obama called Kim Jong-un's actions "provocative and seem to pursue a dead end." The next big question for an American trapped under his regime: Will negotiations over jail time really be a dead end, too?

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