The U.S. State Department is appealing to Pyongyang, asking for the release of Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old man from Lynnwood, Wash., who was just sentenced to serve 15 years of hard labor in North Korea, or DPRK, this past Thursday.
According to the regime’s state-run news outlet, the Korean Central News Agency, referring to Bae by his Korean name, Pae Jun-ho, the Washington resident was arrested last November in Rason, a city located in the DPRK’s far northeastern region that borders China and Russia.
Friends of Bae described him as a devout Christian who was based in the coastal city of Dalian, China, traveling frequently between countries to help feed the orphans in North Korea.
Previous reports suggested that Bae, who worked as a tour operator in Washington, was being accused of attempting to overthrow the North Korean government and of possibly taking pictures of starving children in the country. Other reports suggest his religious affiliations may have also had something to do with his arrest.
During Bae’s sentencing, however, which began on Tuesday, specifics about his crimes against the state were not explicitly revealed.
Over the past five months, Bae’s friends, along with U.S. government figures, including former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and even Google’s (NASDAQ: GOOG) Eric Schmidt, have been pleading with the repressive DPRK regime to bring Bae stateside.
Bobby Lee and Dennis Kwon are two of Bae’s friends who have dedicated the past few months to getting their friend back home. According to the Oregonian, the three arrived in Eugene, Ore., from South Korea during the fall of 1988, to beginning their first semester at the University of Oregon.
It doesn’t surprise Lee that Bae was in North Korea trying to help bring attention to the many ills in North Korean society given that he was very involved in humanitarian causes on campus.
“He wanted people to feel welcome on campus,” Lee said of his friend. “Ken was part of the team that helped put on these events.”
“Knowing Ken from college, he’s such a warm-hearted person,” Kwon said. “I can’t imagine him really breaking the law. ... He probably couldn’t walk away from what he saw [in North Korea].”
The three became fast friends, involving themselves in various student groups that helped tutor disadvantaged students and other humanitarian efforts. Bae later dropped out of the university to start working and support his family, but the trio still remained close. In 1990, Kwon was even Bae’s best man at his wedding.
Now, 23 years later, Lee and Kwon are still standing by their friend. The two have started a Facebook page trying to keep the pressure on authorities to help free their detained friend.
“We’re going to make sure he is not forgotten,” Lee said.
“We’re trying to understand the process in North Korea, which of course is not exactly transparent,” Lee said, discussing their approach in getting Bae back to safety. “I think our actions and strategy will evolve over time, because we’re still learning.”
Other strategies have been in play too, but still, Bae remains in custody. The U.S. State Department had been working with the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang to help secure Bae’s release. In January, Schmidt traveled to North Korea along with Richardson in an attempt to get Bae released. However, Schmidt and Richardson were denied permission to visit Bae in prison.
The U.S. State Department addressed Bae’s harsh sentencing in a media briefing Wednesday, saying that his case was probably conducted unfairly considering no one from the Swedish embassy, the U.S.’s proxy representative, was present.
Patrick Ventrell of the State Department declared that Pyongyang should release Bae on amnesty.
“I think he needs to know we do care,” Lee said. “And that we absolutely love him.”