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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  • Yun Xu

    Let Dave Chapelle enlighten you.

  • Yun Xu

    This guy made a secret christian group to infiltrate North Korea. I don’t like North Korea (their history is too complicated to get into here), but i despise religious bullshitters pretending to help – but usually, through the power of “gawd” help themselves to land, resources, and women.

    https://christianwatchindia.wordpress.com/2010/10/07/partial-history-of-christian-missionary-atrocities/

    PARTIAL HISTORY OF
    CHRISTIAN MISSIONARY ATROCITIES

    A small sample of christian missionary atrocities
    Genocide in Rwanda
    Tahiti & the Pacific
    Hawaii
    Columbus & the Caribbean
    North America
    Virginia
    Midwest
    California Missions
    Mexico City
    The Philippines
    Burma & Thailand
    Vietnam
    China
    India

  • Yun,

    It is not clear that Kenneth Bae was trying to convert North Koreans, so much as trying to save persecuted Christians living in a country where the government kills you for being Christian. He was arrested trying to smuggle pictures of starving North Korean children out of the country. I’d caution against generalizing all missionary work everywhere with what Bae was doing — both a lot of good and a lot of bad has been done in the history of the world in the name of religion.

    And either way, he doesn’t deserve to starve to death as a political prisoner under forced labour conditions.

  • Yun Xu

    That maybe true, but why are some of these children christians at all?

    The irony is that christian missionaries are like serial rapists “gifting” their victims with birth control pills after raping them into a coma. Many of these victims wake up with brain damage and sympathize with their rapists.

    So many of these problems that they are now OSTENSIBLY trying to fix are created by “god fearing and spiritually evolved” white christians.

    I can understand your sympathy for Bae, but I have none.

    Let him serve as a reminder to stop being useful idiots for christian imposters and by extension, white supremacy.

  • SJ

    This was a really good article, I recently saw a documentary made by (I think) Human Rights Watch about these forced labour camps. I had no idea that there was a US citizen in one of them, that the US hasn’t tried to rescue.

    (not that I think US citizens are more worthy of rescue than North Korean citizens, I just meant the hypocrisy about saving that other white dude and not Kenneth Bae)

    Thanks for writing this, I found your blog through your Isla Vista article, and I think I will be a regular reader from now on.

  • SdKfzCenturion

    Well I can think of a number of reasons why Bae has yet to be released, In the case of Bergdahl it was probably the result of stars aligning, Obama is looking to pull out of Afghanistan, despite the heated rhetoric on both sides the Taliban and the US have back channels through intermediaries such as Saudi Arabia or the ISI. From what I understand about kidnapping of foreigners by militant groups, it’s possible that Bergdahl was kidnapped by a small group and then sold/given to progressively larger groups that stood to benefit by keeping him hostage. Perhaps the Taliban are preparing for a US withdrawal and feel that getting back some of their guys gives them a good propaganda victory and might result in more cordial relations with a weakened American government while they angle to reassert control.

    With regards to Bae well the US doesn’t have many back channels (I personally believe that the People’s Republic of China has very limited clout and the DPRK wants to march to their own tune without interference from Beijing. Part of me suspects that Dennis Rodman had gone to North Korea to help secure the release of as many people as possible) and perhaps the DPRK felt that they could maximize the value of a white foreigner as opposed to Bae who looks too much like them. It’s also likely that the DPRK is hoping to hold Bae to get the most concessions possible at some future date. Perhaps Bae serves them better as a reminder to other political prisoners about how powerful the state is.

    tl;dr: The US has more back channels with the Taliban than it does with the DPRK, an agreement was reached that the Taliban felt was sufficiently beneficial while Obama settled for the lowest price possible.

    As for comrade Yun, I don’t know how bad of a day you are having or what your personal circumstances are that would compel you to wish for Bae’s continued imprisonment in a labor camp, but I can possibly offer some insight on why people and children would gravitate towards Christianity. If all your life you have known nothing but an all powerful nominally secular state that cloaks itself in Korean tradition and that state asserts that you and your ancestors had committed some heinous sin and that you and all who follow in your line are doomed to a life in a labour camp, would you not also look for some sliver of hope? Religion has always been malleable, culture has always trumped scripture. Humanity has proven quite adept at using religion to justify their actions, failing that they turn to some other ideology to assert their power. Christianity might be foreign but it’s the only other major religion that made it to Korea that stands the furthest from the state and the current cult of personality. If you are the lowest of the low and beaten daily by those who believe in the DPRK, who or what do you look to that can bring you a better tomorrow? I highly doubt compassion is running riot in those camps, and since no earthly power has given you better circumstances I can see the appeal of a vengeful God that will protect believers and punish the heathens who inflict harm upon you and those you love. Buddhism doesn’t lend itself to smacking your oppressor with any kind of severity on the level of the Angry Jealous God of the old testament. Just because you want salvation doesn’t prevent you from wanting to see your enemies receive divine punishment.

  • The irony is that christian missionaries are like serial rapists “gifting” their victims with birth control pills after raping them into a coma. Many of these victims wake up with brain damage and sympathize with their rapists.

    Wow.

    Yun, I can’t even engage with you on this. This analogy is offensive, and hardly even based in any reasonable interpretation of organized religion.

    I’m not religious, but I do respect that religion is hugely important to a lot of people for the reasons that Skf cites. When you have no hope, religion and faith can provide it; it’s why in the cultures of many oppressed peoples, organized religion often takes hold. Consider the strong tradition of Christianity in the African American community, which arose out of slavery. Yet, today, to say that the African American church is not distinctly part of Black culture would be both insulting and non-factual. The tradition of Korean Christianity may originate out of missionary work (as it does throughout the world), but it is also a significant aspect of Korean American culture today. To argue that Christian missions are equivalent to rapists, and that by extension, Kenneth Bae — by virtue of his faith and possible missionary work — deserves to die as a political prisoner in a forced labour camp is just indefensible. There are some missionaries who use flawed logic to perform missionary work; there are others who use missionary efforts as a channel for their philanthropic nature. All indications are that Bae is the latter; it’s not even clear that he was trying to convert people so much as to support a persecuted group who are forced to practice their faith in secrecy under threat of death.

    @Sdfk

    With regards to Bae well the US doesn’t have many back channels (I personally believe that the People’s Republic of China has very limited clout and the DPRK wants to march to their own tune without interference from Beijing. Part of me suspects that Dennis Rodman had gone to North Korea to help secure the release of as many people as possible) and perhaps the DPRK felt that they could maximize the value of a white foreigner as opposed to Bae who looks too much like them. It’s also likely that the DPRK is hoping to hold Bae to get the most concessions possible at some future date. Perhaps Bae serves them better as a reminder to other political prisoners about how powerful the state is.

    tl;dr: The US has more back channels with the Taliban than it does with the DPRK, an agreement was reached that the Taliban felt was sufficiently beneficial while Obama settled for the lowest price possible.

    You are right that this is a question of leverage. We had leverage with the Taliban — we had prisoners of theirs — that we don’t necessarily have with North Korea. But, it’s unclear to me what the circumstances of Merrill Newman’s release were. But, if we are talking bargaining chip, would not Newman — a veteran — be more leverage for North Korea than a man who has lived in China as an expat for 7 years? Also, it’s unclear to what Newman was exchanged for — most of the articles I’ve read simply indicate he was released without condition (obviously, that’s unlikely). Either way, Bill Richardson went to North Korea to secure Newman’s release; no diplomat has traveled to North Korea to help Bae, and no Dennis Rodman doesn’t count. My gut is that the United States is just less invested in securing Bae’s release than they were for Newman.

  • Yun Xu

    “When you have no hope, religion and faith can provide it; it’s why in the cultures of many oppressed peoples, organized religion often takes hold. Consider the strong tradition of ********Christianity in the African American community, which arose out of slavery. Yet, today, to say that the African American church is not distinctly part of Black culture would be both insulting and non-factual************”

    You just described the Stockholm syndrome in these victims that I’m warning about.

    You have Black people who now worship a whitewashed jesus, the same color as the group that completely fucked them over.

    I know some christian people have good intentions, but they are still useful idiots.

    When someone gives money to a beggar, they’re doing a similar thing. They have good intentions but their charity enables the beggar’s continued self-destruction.

  • You have Black people who now worship a whitewashed jesus, the same color as the group that completely fucked them over.

    Yet, the tradition of the Black church is profoundly African American, and has been responsible for significant uplift within that community. The Black community has created a distinct form of Christianity that is their own. Also, Christianity isn’t a White religion; the notion of Black Jesus is potent because it’s likely factual.

    Either way, by your logic, POC should also stop speaking English, stop using currency, and basically stop participating in anything remotely representative of the Western world that has its cultural origins in Europe.

    Also, I really want to tag Snoopy in, since he can really speak about the African American tradition of the Black church far better than I.

  • Yun Xu

    “Christianity isn’t a White religion”
    That’s why I said “whitewashed jesus”.

    The other systems imposed upon/adopted by non-white are still forms of cultural imperialism, but worshiping a whitened god is super deadly because it infects one’s mind.

    So what if Black churches broke off from white churches?

    How can Blacks hate and fight white supremacists (as they rightfully should) when they worship a whitewashed god?

    see more http://www.blacknews.com/news/jesus_worship_hurts_black_community101.shtml#.U5DUGFddamw

  • J. Lamb (Snoopy Jenkins)

    @Yun Xu – You don’t know what you are talking about.

    Usually, I’m much more willing to avoid comment in this space on the sneering ignorance spouted from some regular commenters, but your comments on the Black church deserve rebuke. What has been clear from its inception is that the Black church synthesized its Protestant traditions from various West African theological traditions as well as the Protestant denominations of the White majority. Evidence abounds, from the call and response musical tradition in Black gospel music to the political and community uplift themes of Sunday sermons. Even the strong identification with Old Testament Israelite liberation emerges as a direct response to the Black experience with American chattel slavery.

    Yun Xu, your assertion that Black churchgoers suffer from ‘Stockholm syndrome’ is non-factual and offensive. Any cursory knowledge of the history of the Black church displays honorable resistance to White supremacy in every era, from the Christian slaves who incorporated a demonstrative call and response techniques into gospel music, often in direct conflict with the orderly and quiet services promoted by slavemasters, to the Christian abolitionists whose direct action precipitated the Civil War, to the Southern Christian Leadership Convention that elevated Dr. King and his lieutenants to prominence with their support and management of the Civil Rights Movement, to the Black liberation theologians within the Black church who responded to Movement success with a cultural nationalism that removed European imagery from many Black churches in the 1960?s and 1970?s. Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s promotion of Black liberation theology attracted many idealistic Black souls to political and social uplift, including President Barack Obama.

    The point: no one arrives at the political and social successes that paved the country’s journey to modernity without Black Christianity. Black Christians showed America that her ideals, so beautifully expressed by the Declaration of Independence, could not be realized so long as slaveowners like the Declaration’s author held sway in the South. Black Christians dismantled Jim Crow segregation within a generation, and offered a workable template for other maligned groups – women, gays, Asian Americans – to follow into improved social, political, and economic conditions. To dismiss all this history as a psychological condition is bad comedy.

    It’s completely reasonable that Kenneth Bae, a Christian activist, would feel empowered by his religious beliefs to attempt to spark change in the DPRK. His brand of religious social activism has abundant precedent in the Black community, and among students of history everywhere.

    To paraphrase Jay Z, smarten up Yun.

  • Yun Xu

    Thanks for the insight, Snoopy. 3 items.

    1. re:stockholm.

    Sorry. I wasn’t trying to be offensive. You did mention a movement to remove european pics from churches so that proves my point. However, what use is removing pics from a few church walls, when one’s entire world is plastered with pics of european christians “saving” people?

    2. re:progress
    Do you think the Black church made all that possible?

    In other words, had the Black church been replaced by a non-religious social support network, what would you predict would happen?

    Just a quick search showed that there were hundreds revolts of 10 or more people
    the link below gives a chronology – probably not exhaustive.
    http://slaverebellion.org/index.php?page=united-states-insurrections

    I would predict, Blacks would always fight back and the a social network amplified their efforts.

    3. Initially, whites feared that Black churches would organize revolts and watched them closely. TWO Black leaders were murdered so we can rule out whites evolving from their barbaric past.

    Why do they allow Black churches around if Black churches are a potent political force?

    My writing is done. Hova

  • SdKfzCenturion

    @Jenn
    Considering the kind of price Obama paid to get Bergdahl (a possible deserter) back I think this administration is trying but its possible the price is well beyond the pale. We also simply don’t have DPRK prisoners to swap and giving them any defectors is simply out of the question. There is also the possibility that DPRK simply doesn’t want to deal Bae at this time. Considering how religious groups have always been seen as the greatest internal threat to state power for by communist governments it’s not unreasonable to assume that the humble preacher registers as a significant threat in their eyes because Bae doesn’t stick out as much and it’s unlikely that a foreign veteran can build a following in the same way.

    Richardson got the credit but there were probably a lot of people involved in less publicized talks that eventually made it possible. Richardson was tasked with securing the release of both, but he only got one, and I doubt that he had full or any say in which guy would go home.

    Rodman may have grabbed the headlines but in negotiations any and all avenues have to be pursued. I don’t think that Rodman went to North Korea simply to see his good friend for an exhibition game. He had other guys in tow who had more to lose if the trip went bad. I don’t think those guys went for money or fame. Given how little we know about the leadership and the country under new management any details those men saw could help build a more complete picture about the people who are holding Bae. Right now Rodman is the one of the few US nationals who does have a line to Kim Jong-un and could serve as a conduit for future talks. I don’t expect Rodman to be the negotiator but I don’t think Rodman forgot about Bae. Realistically, though, there wasn’t much he could do to secure his release. I would not have chosen Rodman because the man has been battling alcohol for a very long time, but he was the only man they would see. Even if Bae’s release was not forth coming, he might get better treatment because Bae is a bargaining chip.

    It’s a stupid dance, but one that has to take place with the DPRK as the DJ.

    tl;dr: Rodman’s trip might not have gotten Bae released but any observations that he and his people made would contribute to piecing together a complete picture about what the DPRK leadership needs and what it wants. The DPRK knows that we have no prisoners to give so they can exact a high price for his release on their time table. As religion constitutes the greatest perceived threat to internal order to the communist state, Bae being Korean and Christian likely adds more internal significance to his release. The US has requested to see him and have asked for his release, but right now the DPRK has the leverage they aren’t going to deal on the cheap.

  • J. Lamb (Snoopy Jenkins)

    @Yun Xu – The overall problem with your critique of the Black church is that you deny the singular ability of the Black church – over generations – to operate as the most potent galvanizing force in Black communities. No other institution in Black social or political life had as much influence, longevity, and consistency within African American circles. The Black family was often torn asunder through the vagaries of the slave market; West African chattel spoke different languages and practiced different traditions. Without the Black church, no unifying slave institution would have offered spiritual and cultural resistance to the physical tyranny slaves endured.

    We should remember – these are people whose labor and intellect and bodies and selves were stolen and plundered to generate American wealth. Any description that dismisses their organized resistance as a collective mental disorder disrespects history.

    Yun, Black liberation theology, and the African American cultural nationalism expressed by its precepts, does not prove your ahistorical commentary accurate. While their have been many commentators in African American political history who have questioned European Christ imagery in Black churches, it’s comical to assume from that debate that Black Christians generally accept White supremacy along with White Jesus. We know that the Black church proved the center of resistance to White supremacy in nearly every era of Black history, from Christian preacher and slave Nat Turner’s rebellion to the Montgomery bus boycott.

    The Black church was the community’s moral center, its spiritual and social heart. We know what would happen when the Black church was divorced from resistance movements against White supremacy: those movements had extreme difficulty recruiting and retaining Black community support for resistance action. The Montgomery bus boycott proves a stellar example – When local NAACP head and labor leader E.D. Nixon wished to spark the bus boycott in the Black community, he rejected the civil disobedience of pregnant teen Claudette Colvin, who refused to give up her seat on a city bus a few months before Rosa Parks, used Parks as a test case to challenge segregation in public transport, and cajoled the politically conservative Black clergy into supporting the boycott.

    This included identifying and promoting the young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, and taking the role of treasurer for himself. The point? Nixon recognized that the only avenue for success for the bus boycott involved the support of the Black church – often the only stable institution in some Black communities. When you ask why the Black church still exists, given its resistance history, my only response is that spirituality remains in many ethnic communities a highly potent political force that Americans defend. Y’know, First Amendment and all that. Some of the most disheartening moments of the Civil Rights and post-Civil Rights era involved church bombings like the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and the spate of Black church arsons in the 1980’s. These attacks on Black Christianity incited sympathy and anger throughout America, without regard for race, because they directly attacked American citizens’ right to worship, a bridge too far for most.

    So Yun, if you disagree with Kenneth Bae’s tactics, fine. But to attack his religion, the religion shared by many in my community, you should revise your position.

    Smarten up Yun.

  • Yun Xu

    Strong rebuttal. Thanks for the education. Please stop the JayZ references.