Just what was this American doing in North Korea?

Let’s begin this post by first looking at a Christianity Today blog post from earlier this week. Here’s a portion:

North Korea has announced that it will try an American citizen who was arrested nearly six months ago for “crimes aimed to topple the [Democratic People's Republic of Korea].” If convicted, China-based missionary Kenneth Bae could face the death penalty.

But Bae’s friends say he did not do anything wrong despite reports by North Korean state media that he confessed to the crime. According to the Associated Press, “friends and colleagues described Bae as a devout Christian from Washington state but based in the Chinese border city of Dalian who traveled frequently to North Korea to feed the country’s orphans.”

Bae was detained in November 2012. The State Department has not confirmed that Bae is indeed the man whom North Korea plans to put on trial.

“At least three other Americans detained in recent years also have been devout Christians,” the AP reports. “While North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the regime.”

I don’t quite understand the lack of global attention on North Korea, one of the most unbelievably brutal regimes in human history. That lack of attention typically extends to the work Christians are doing there, often surreptitiously. But check out how another media outlet handled the news of Bae’s sentencing.

The New York Times has a story headlined “North Korea Imposes Term of 15 Years on American.” It begins:

North Korea said Thursday that its Supreme Court had sentenced an American citizen to 15 years of hard labor for committing hostile acts against its government.

The citizen, Kenneth Bae, 44, a Korean-American from Washington State who ran a tour business out of China, was arrested in the special economic zone of Rason in northeastern North Korea in November after leading a group of businessmen there from Yanji, China. On Saturday, the North said it was indicting him on charges that he tried to overthrow Pyongyang’s government.

On Thursday, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said the Supreme Court had sentenced Mr. Bae during a hearing Tuesday. The court convicted him of “hostile acts,” a charge less grave than the original charge that prosecutors pressed. The crime of trying to overthrow the government could have resulted in the death penalty.

Under North Korean law, Mr. Bae should be transferred to a labor camp within 10 days of the ruling.

It goes on to talk about diplomatic problems. This is as close as we get to learning that there may be a ghost — ever so slightly a hint of something more to the story:

South Korean human rights advocates have said that Mr. Bae not only ran tours to North Korea but also was interested in helping orphans there. They said security officials in the North may have been offended by pictures of orphans that Mr. Bae had taken and stored in his computer.

Interested in helping orphans? You don’t say. The story then mentions some other haunted people who were sentenced to hard labor, but doesn’t mention their religion.

Of all the global stories I wish got more attention, the crimes against humanity committed by the North Korean government are at the top of my list. And since any engagement with that country is so difficult, the stories of Christians and others who are attempting to help North Koreans deserve much better coverage.

Telling those stories without explaining what motivates these people can be a disservice to the larger story.

  • Deann Alford

    Check this no-holds-barred Christian Science Monitor piece on Kenneth Bae: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Foreign-Policy/2013/0502/Did-detained-American-s-Christianity-scare-North-Korean-regime?s=yaho

    subhed pulls no punches: <>

    The CSM story also asks this question: <> But even so, this story fails to develop the “scared to death of Christianity” angle. Why is North Korea so fearful? Its capital, Pyongyang, was once the “Jerusalem of the East” but no real delving into the plight of anybody caught with a Bible, in an underground church or Bible study. Prison camps are chock full of Christians — at least 50,000.

    • Deann Alford

      Ok, trying again: CSM asks: Did detained American’s Christianity scare North Korean regime?
      Kenneth Bae is a devout Christian, and ‘the regime is scared to death of Christianity.’

      Back to my previous post. Should restate that the headline sets up a no-holds-barred but doesn’t follow through with answering the questions.


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