Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary imprisoned in North Korea, recounted last Wednesday how he had engaged in a kind of spiritual tourism to a little-known city in the northwestern corner of the country. Between 2011 and 2012, Bae brought more than 300 people on tours to North Korea [as part of his vision to evangelize North Koreans].
But on his 18th trip, he said, he made what he called a “very crucial mistake” — inadvertently bringing a computer hard drive along in a briefcase he meant to leave behind in China. The hard drive had files about his missionary work. It also contained a video of emaciated North Korean children scrounging in the dirt for food — footage Mr. Bae said a friend had sent him years earlier and that he not ever fully watched.
After the banned material was discovered, he was held in seclusion in a hotel in northeastern North Korea for a month while officials grilled him. He was given little to eat, generally a few bites of rice and some wilted vegetables, and was forced to watch government propaganda every evening. But he was not beaten or overtly physically abused by authorities.
He eventually confessed that one of the documents on his hard drive was a plan for what he described as “Operation Jericho” — an effort to bring tourists into North Korea to pray and spread the love of God. They would not have openly evangelized, but he had hoped that the “walls” isolating North Koreans from the rest of the world would come crumbling down, just as the walls of Jericho fell in the Bible story.
The book outlines how North Korean officials did not understand the plan’s metaphorical nature, and how Mr. Bae struggled to explain that he wasn’t trying to actually overthrow the government. The government sentenced him to 15 years in prison.
“I had to make a choice,” he said, adding that he began praying deeply as he pondered whether to fight his incarceration or somehow embrace it. He finally determined that it was “God’s will” that had put him there. “After that moment,” he said, “my perspective of life in prison changed because I was no longer there as a prisoner, but I was there as God’s ambassador — somebody who was sent from God to do God’s work.”
It was that belief that ultimately brought him through the ordeal, Mr. Bae said, adding that it has since made him realize that he had a new mission: to remind the world not to forget the ordinary people who are suffering in North Korea.
“We need to differentiate between the government and the people. The people are suffering without knowing what is coming next for them,” Mr. Bae said. “We as people outside need to continue to stand up for them and reach out to them and remember them through prayer support and any other blessing we can give.”