State of the Union draws attention to U.S. missionary jailed in North Korea

Two Democratic congressmen invited the mother and sister of an American citizen suspected of illegal missionary activity in North Korea to Tuesday’s address to help build public support for his release from prison on humanitarian grounds.

By Bob Allen

The sister and mother of an American imprisoned in North Korea accepted an invitation to attend Tuesday’s State of the Union address in hopes of raising awareness about efforts to win his release.

Earlier in the day, Secretary of State John Kerry met with the family of Kenneth Bae of Lynnwood, Wash., arrested in November 2012 while leading a tour through his China-based business allegedly used as a front company to bring missionaries into the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

kenneth bae“We fully support the efforts of the Bae family to bring Kenneth Bae home,” Kerry spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement released to the press. “We continue to urge the DPRK to pardon Bae for his actions and grant him amnesty and immediate release.”

Bae’s mother, Myunghee Bae, and sister Terri Chung joined luminaries such as “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson in the gallery as guests of members of Congress. Their invitation came from Democratic Reps. Rick Larsen of Washington State and Charles Rangel of New York.

“I am pleased to welcome Myunghee and Terri to the Capitol as guests for the State of the Union address,” Larsen said. “They have been tireless advocates for Kenneth, and I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them as we continue our work to ensure his safe return home.”

Rangel said he has repeatedly called North Korea to release Bae and wanted to reiterate this message by bringing his family as guests to the State of the Union.

“Nothing is more tragic than the separation of families and loved ones,” Rangel said. “As a Korean War veteran, I have long advocated for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, and hope North Korea would take steps to build trust and reconciliation by first reuniting the Bae family.”

Recently Bae told reporters he committed a "serious crime" in North Korea and had not experienced abusive treatment during his 15 months in prison.

"I would like to plead with the U.S. government, press and my family to stop worsening my situation by making vile rumors against North Korea and releasing materials related to me, which are not based on the facts," he said before video cameras in Pyongyang.

"I want to be pardoned by the North as soon as possible and return to my beloved family," Bae told journalists from several news organizations. "For that, I ask the U.S. government, press and my family to make more active efforts and pay more attention."

While news reports noted that North Korea has a history of exacting false confessions, Bae’s family members expressed hope the appearance indicates that the government is ready to negotiate for his release.

"We understand that Kenneth has been convicted of crimes under [North Korean] laws,” Bae’s sister said in a statement. “Our family sincerely apologizes on Kenneth's behalf. Kenneth has also acknowledged his crimes and has apologized. He has now served 15 months of his sentence, but faces chronic health problems. We humbly ask for your mercy to release my brother."

According to a website set up by family and friends, Bae, a devout Christian and father of three, several years ago “saw an opportunity that combined his entrepreneurial spirit with his personal convictions as a Christian.”

He opened a travel agency in China named Nation Tours and led 15 groups to “introduce the natural beauty of the country and its people to the outside world as a tour operator,” while “showing compassion to the North Korean people by contributing to their economy,” the website says.

After his arrest in November 2012 in Rason along North Korea's northeastern coast, the independent news service NKnews.org reported that Bae was a trained missionary sent to China by the non-denominational evangelical organization Youth With a Mission in 2006.

A spokesman for North Korea’s Supreme Court told the government’s official news source in May that Bae “set up plot-breeding bases in different places of China” calling for the ouster of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

The official said Bae was “caught red-handed” with anti-government propaganda and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for “conducting a malignant smear campaign” against the state.

Korean news sources said Bae planned an “Operation Jericho” to bring in at least 250 students trained as missionaries under the guise that they were tourists. The project was named after the story of Israelite spies infiltrating the ancient city of Jericho in Canaan prior to its conquest described in the book of Joshua.

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman drew attention to the case recently in rambling comments while visiting North Korea, implying the missionary deserved to be in prison. Rodman later said he had been drinking and apologized for not being able to help a fellow American.

U.S. officials say they have been working for months with the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang requesting amnesty for Bae, who is reportedly seriously ill, on humanitarian grounds.

Last August North Korea invited the State Department's special envoy for human-rights issues, Ambassador Robert King, to Pyongyang to negotiate for Bae’s freedom but withdrew the offer at the last minute.

Glyn Davis, the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy, called for Bae’s release while speaking to reporters in Beijing Jan. 28.

“We hope that they’re willing to release Kenneth Bae,” Davis said in comments quoted by the Associated Press. “His family is understandably very worried about his fate and would like him to be returned to them.”