In the wake of Bowe Bergdahl’s release, why aren’t we doing more for Kenneth Bae?

Kenneth Bae before his imprisonment (left) and after a year in a North Korean labour camp where he is being held captive as a political prisoner (right).
Korean American Kenneth Bae before his imprisonment (left) and after a year in a North Korean labour camp where he is being held captive as a political prisoner (right).

Earlier this week, the Obama Administration secretly secured the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only US serviceman still listed as missing-in-action in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Bergdahl was held captive for 5 years by the Taliban under unknown conditions, and is currently in hospital under medical supervision; the long-lasting psychological and emotional scars of his imprisonment are even more unclear. What we do know is that Bergdahl’s release was initiated in part due to concerns that he would likely die if he remained with his Taliban captors.

In order to negotiate Bergdahl’s release, President Obama agreed to exchange Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. This deal is being widely criticized by Republicans for bypassing Congress and for emboldening terrorists through negotiation. They argue that Bergdahl was a deserter,who did not deserve US intervention on his behalf. They criticize that this deal legitimized the Taliban.

But I fail to understand the alternative — to allow a man to die because we are willing to declare war on a terrorist organization but cannot recognize them across a negotiation table?

Regardless of the circumstances of his capture, Bowe Bergdahl is a US citizen and serviceman and I believe that the US government has a moral responsibility (if not necessarily the legal one, as I learned from Snoopy this morning) to advocate on behalf of its citizenry when their lives are unlawfully at-risk overseas. In this case, the US government had the means by which to save the life of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, and they took it.

What I want to know is this: if the Obama administration is willing to take steps to secure the release of Sgt Bowe Bergdahl from the hands of the Taliban, why have they still done so little to help free Kenneth Bae, a US citizen and civilian who has been illegitimately imprisoned in a North Korean labour camp for nearly two years — an innocent American citizen who is likely being held under conditions so deplorable they violate all contemporary definitions of human rights?

If President Obama will save Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, why won’t he save Kenneth Bae?

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with his Taliban captors in a screen capture from a video.
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with his Taliban captors in a screen capture from a video.

North Korea’s government is — by far — one of the worst current offenders in the violation of human rights in the modern world. Last year, the United Nations published an unprecedented report nearly 400 pages in length detailing the widespread abuse and torture that North Korea’s government commits against its citizens right now. They said in their press release:

“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” the Commission — established by the Human Rights Council in March 2013 — says in a report that is unprecedented in scope.

“These crimes against humanity entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation,” the report says, adding that “Crimes against humanity are ongoing in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place.”

An estimated six large gulags and an additional 20 “reeducation camps” are in operation in North Korea right now, housing more than 200,000 prisoners under heinous conditions. Forced into manual labour and given only the most meagre of rations to live, nearly 40% of prisoners die of starvation. In these camps, prisoners endure all manner of abuse and torture, and can be executed on a whim; women are routinely raped and forced to undergo abortion, and infanticide may also occur. From the United Nations’ full report:

In the political prison camps of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the inmate population has been gradually eliminated through deliberate starvation, forced labour, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide. The commission estimates that hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished in these camps over the past five decades. The unspeakable atrocities that are being committed against inmates of the kwanliso political prison camps resemble the horrors of camps that totalitarian States established during the twentieth century.

This is happening right now.

A Google Earth image identifying Camp 22 in North Korea. (Photo credit: The Telegraph)
A Google Earth image identifying Camp 22 in North Korea. (Photo credit: The Telegraph)

Kenneth Bae is a Korean American man raised in California, who moved to China seven years ago. He started a tourism company to North Korea that was secretly a Christian missionary group, and was travelling into North Korea to help support North Korean Christians. The United Nations notes that Christianity is considered a “particularly serious threat” to the DPRK, and that Christian North Koreans are widely persecuted — subjected to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment in the horrific prison camps that dot the countryside.

Apart from the few organized State-controlled churches, Christians are prohibited from practising their religion and are persecuted. People caught practising Christianity are subject to severe punishments in violation of the right to freedom of religion and the prohibition of religious discrimination.

Kenneth Bae was arrested by North Korean officials on November 3, 2012 after he was discovered with pictures of starving North Korean orphans in a hard disk on his person. He was charged with “hostile acts with the republic” and sentenced to 15 years hard labour in one of these prison camps characterized by physical abuse and widespread starvation. According to reports, Bae has reported in handwritten letters to his family that he is suffering a number of health problems including diabetes, liver problems, hypertension, back problems and progressive blindness; it is highly likely that if Bae is not rescued, he will die in the North Korean prison camp that is holding him captive.

Unlike the Taliban, North Korea is an internationally acknowledged (if heavily sanctioned) government. The Obama administration has already signaled its willingness to negotiate with the DPRK when it rapidly secured the release of Merrill Newman, an 85 year old American arrested on a tour of North Korea (whom I shall casually note is White and not Asian American). Yet, this administration has repeatedly failed to do anything to secure the release of Kenneth Bae, an American who being held as a political prisoner in a North Korean labour camp under conditions we know violate his human rights; Bae was only briefly mentioned in passing during the negotiations over Merrill Newman and then promptly forgotten.

All this week, the Obama administration has justified its negotiation with the Taliban in rescuing Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl by reminding us that the United States leaves no soldier behind.

Yet, why are we completely willing to leave behind an Asian American citizen in the political prisons of North Korea, where he will surely die?

Act Now! Here’s a Change.org petition started by Kenneth Bae’s son — please sign it. Here is the Free Kenneth Bae website, with other ideas for how to get involved.

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