Kenneth Bae, the longest-held U.S. citizen detained in North Korea since the Korean War, spoke to reporters in Washington Wednesday about highlights from his two-year detainment.
Bae said one of most jarring aspects of his long stay in a North Korean prison was a conversation he had with a prison guard watching over him in the labor camp. The talk “really haunted me,” said the Korean-American Christian missionary who spent two years in North Korean custody prior to his sudden release in 2014.
The college-educated guard revealed that “he’d never in his life heard the name Jesus before,” recalled Bae, who recounted the experience during a presentation on Capitol Hill Wednesday. “Where does Jesus live? In China or North Korea? That was his sincere question that he asked me,” said an exasperated Bae.
“This is the 21st century in prosperous East Asia,” he said, adding that one of the things he realized during his captivity is that the people of North Korea “really don’t know what it is to live outside.”
“I mentioned to some people, ‘Did you know that the South Korean economy is about 40 times larger than the North Korean economy is?’ And they had no idea,” he said.
“Some people I asked, ‘Do you know that the secretary-general of the U.N. is actually South Korean?’ And, the response that I got was, ‘No way, that is not possible.’”
But the fact that an educated government official guarding him had no idea of the existence of Jesus Christ was particularly “painful,” said Bae, because of his knowledge of Korean history. Prior to the late-1940s rise of a totalitarian dictatorship in North Korea, Pyongyang was actually known as the “Jerusalem of the Far East” for the large number of Christians who lived there, he said.
Mr. Bae has just published “Not Forgotten: The True Story of My Imprisonment in North Korea,” an intensely personal religious memoir peppered with biblical quotes bolstering his view that God’s hand was behind both his incarceration and release.