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."