In April 2013, North Korea’s Supreme Court sentenced Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae to 15 years’ hard labour for the crime of bringing a computer hard drive into the country from his base in China.
During his incarceration, Bae – who described himself in news reports later as a political pawn used by North Korea – suffered psychological abuse and physical ill-health. Despite his desperate conditions, he kept his faith in God and chose to see the best in the captors who kept him prisoner for over 700 days prior to his release in November 2014.
In an e-mail interview with Star2, Bae gives some insights into his time as a prisoner in the world’s most secretive country – a journey he explores in his fascinating book, Not Forgotten: The True Story Of My Imprisonment In North Korea.
When you realised you brought your hard drive into North Korea, and when officials raised the alarm, what was going through your mind?
I was really afraid of what was going to happen. I always knew there were risks going in and out of North Korea but in 17 prior visits, I never had any difficulties at customs. Once I realised I had accidentally brought the hard drive, I was terrified because I knew that my identity as missionary would surely be discovered.
Why do you think this happened?
God could have prevented me from being detained in North Korea, but he didn’t. Therefore, I believe it was God’s will for me to be detained in North Korea for his purpose to be accomplished. I was able to connect with the people and got to know the real life of ordinary citizens in North Korea.
It seems that you managed to maintain a sense of hope in the face of psychological and physical trauma – how did you sustain that mind set?
The first month and last months of detainment were extremely difficult to endure. For the first month, I was afraid that, because of my careless mistake, I had put many people in danger and I blamed myself a lot. But the Lord showed up on the third day of detainment, assuring me that no one would be harmed. I tried to live one day at a time and hoped for the best.
The last month was difficult because I knew that help was on the way. However, being harassed by a prosecutor telling me that no one was coming to the rescue, and seeing no signs of rescue, it was hard to remain positive. I started to feel bitter and felt anger towards the Government. I became depressed.
But the Lord spoke to me through Zephaniah 3:20, that he would bring me home. That gave me a hope to hold on to. Five days after, I was able to come home.
Did you prepare yourself for the possibility of never again seeing your family and friends?
I realised that even if I wasn’t able to go home and be united with my family, I was grateful God used me as his instrument all these years. I realised what he meant when he said, “If you love your brothers, sisters, mother and father, spouses and children more than me, then you cannot be my disciple”. I was ready to accept whatever consequences I might face.
You wrote about connecting with the guards who kept watch over you. How would you describe the North Koreans you met?
They are ordinary people, just as you find in other countries. They have the same concerns relating to family, marriage, money issues and relationship problems with their coworkers. I saw them as real people, not as robots, although they experience a different sociopolitical system in which they have no say, and are only to follow instructions.
We need to have compassion for the ordinary people of North Korea and remember their suffering.
How did you deal with the realisation that you were a pawn in the North Korean regime’s hostility towards the United States?
I knew that it was something bigger than I could handle. No matter my behaviour, they would not let me go until the American Govern-ment met their demands. I simply had to accept it and wait to be rescued, hoping for a quick release. North Korean officials confirmed that my incarceration wouldn’t have lasted so long had I not been American.
But instead of falling into despair, I put my trust in God and the American Government. I even hoped I could play a role in developing a dialogue between the two countries to relieve tensions.
In your book, you talk about how you called on God to use you as a bridge between North Korea and the outside world. How could you hope to achieve such a thing when the leaders of North Korea see themselves as divine rulers?
Almost all the humanitarian workers working in North Korea are Christians. The North Korean Government knows that Christians around the world have been helping them: they just don’t like it when we cross the line (such as witnessing, or praying for positive change).
Despite their doctrine and crackdowns on any religious activity, I believe that more visible activities by Christians around the world in and out of North Korea will eventually open more doors. There is the example of the Pyongyang Science and Technology University that was started by Christian missionaries. More exchanges and interactions would bring down the walls and people would feel safe to open up more.
Do you think any kind of revolution, spiritual or otherwise, will manifest in the future for North Koreans?
I hope God has planted seeds in many minds there and I believe in God’s own time, He will raise many spiritual leaders from North Korea. I am still praying for a great revival to take place in the near future.
What have you been up to since your release?
I have been spending time with family and friends, and I have been planning to start an NGO focusing on North Korean refuges in South Korea. There are more than 30,000 of them now living in South Korea and the numbers are increasing by thousands every year.
I’ve spent time with families of other detainees, and I encourage them to focus on God and take it one day at a time. I believe it was God’s will for me to endure two years in North Korea, and I have gained many insights and developed compassion and a desire to help those who are forgotten and isolated from that time. I believe God can use others in similar ways to show His heart for the lost and be a blessing to them.
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