The State Department says the Swedish Embassy in North Korea has visited detained American missionary Kenneth Bae at a labor camp.
Spokeswoman Marie Harf said Wednesday this week’s visit was the 12th by Swedish representatives since Kenneth Bae was arrested in November 2012. As a result of his missionary and humanitarian work, he is serving 15 years of hard labor for alleged “hostile acts against North Korea”.
Sweden handles consular cases for the U.S. because Washington does not have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. He’s one of three Americans now held.
Harf gave no update on Bae’s condition but said the department spoke to Bae’s family after Monday’s visit. His family says he has diabetes, heart and liver problems.
Bae recently told a pro-North Korean newspaper his health was worsening and he felt abandoned by the U.S. government.
Missionaries have sought to evangelize in North Korea, as the totalitarian country forbids independent religious activities. Although North Korea contains a number of state-controlled churches, they are considered for show to international audiences, according to a report by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea.
Religion, especially Christianity, is viewed as a political threat because the state does not condone any belief system other than its official state ideology, according to the report.
Witnesses claim that underground churches function inside North Korea, according to the U.N. report. Also, missionaries and underground churches have secretly set up in China near the border to aid defectors.
North Korea is currently holding Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American, who was arrested in November 2012. Bae was sentenced in May 2013, accused of trying to topple the North Korean government and bringing religious activities into the country. He has remained in North Korean custody despite efforts by the U.S. and his family.
More recently, North Korea’s Supreme Court sentenced a South Korean man to life of hard labor for committing “hostile acts” against the country, according to its state-run news agency, KCNA. The South Korean, identified as Kim Jong Uk, averted the death sentence because he allegedly “repented of his crimes,” which included an attempt to set up an underground church inside the country.
Kim said he had worked as a missionary for several years on the Chinese side of the border with North Korea, running a church that sought North Korean converts.
Responding to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, North Korean ambassador Se Pyong stated, “There are in the northeastern area of China so-called churches and priests exclusively engaged in hostile acts against the DPRK. They indoctrinate the illegal border crossers with anti-DPRK ideology and send them back to the DPRK with assignments of subversion, destruction, human trafficking and even terrorist acts.”
Rev. Eric Foley, who is the CEO of Seoul USA, a US/Korean NGO that operates a number of discipleship bases reaching North Koreans, says, “The significance of North Korea’s comments cannot be overstated. North Korea is choosing to publicly blame Christian missionaries for its human rights problems and internal difficulties.”
Foley notes that the situation facing North Korean missionaries in Northeast China is tight and getting tighter. But Foley adds that the challenge is not only from North Korea. “If North Korea is pointing to missionaries operating in China as a source of potential North Korean instability, and if it is alleging that China is the host, then missionaries can expect an increasing crackdown on churches and discipleship bases reaching North Koreans.”
After his release from North Korea, 75-year-old Australian missionary John Short reported that he was interrogated for four hours a day and kept under 24-hour guard during his 13 days in North Korean captivity.
“There were two-hour sessions each morning, which were repeated again in the afternoons,” he said.
He said he “openly and honestly” admitted his crime as worded in the indictment: that he distributed Bible tracts with the purpose of making North Koreans become Christians.
“I strongly protested that I was not a spy, nor working with any South Korean organizations nor was I hostile to the DPRK,” he wrote, referring to North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Short said in a statement to Australian Associated Press on Wednesday that recounting Biblical scriptures helped him endure the “long and grueling investigation.”
He said he was told that he faced 15 years in prison for distributing religious pamphlets at a Buddhist temple and on a crowded train.
“I confessed that I had knowingly broken the law in what I believed is my God-directed duty and as I do in every place and country I visit,” Short said.
Short, an enthusiastic walker, said his confinement in a room in Pyongyang under constant guard was stressful. “This I found to be most painful physically as an active senior person,” he said. “I missed my freedom to walk very much.”
North Korea on Monday deported an Australian missionary detained for spreading Christianity in the country, saying he apologized for his anti-state religious acts and requested forgiveness.
Authorities in North Korea had arrested 75-year-old John Short for secretly distributing Bible tracts near a Buddhist temple in Pyongyang on February 16.
KCNA said North Korea decided to expel him in part out of consideration for his age.
North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the government. Defectors from the country have said that the distribution of Bibles and secret prayer services can mean banishment to a labor camp or execution.
North Korea typically frees foreign detainees after they’ve admitted their crimes, but many say after their releases that their confessions were given involuntarily and under duress.
Since November, North Korea has arrested a Korean American missionary, a South Korean missionary, and an Australian missionary. Christian News Wire asks, “Do these arrests represent a declaration of war on Christians?”
Not a new one, says the CEO of one North Korea ministry. According to the Rev. Eric Foley of Seoul USA, “It’s important to remember that the war on Christians was declared by North Korea with its formal establishment as a state in 1948 and has been unrelenting ever since.”
Foley says that those being held — Korean American Kenneth Bae, South Korean Kim Jong Uk, and Australian John Short — should be remembered in our prayers “along with the 30,000 North Korean underground Christians who are paying the price of faith in quiet anonymity in North Korea’s concentration camps.”
Foley notes that “… We can conclude with certainty is that there is no ‘back door’ into North Korea — no strategy for sharing the gospel there that does not involve paying the highest of personal prices. This is what North Korean underground Christians have known and practiced for years, and Bae, Kim, and Short have now joined that story personally.”
Foley says that what has surprised him the most personally about North Korean underground Christians is their acceptance that the practice of their faith will naturally lead them to imprisonment in a concentration camp. “They do not regard imprisonment with surprise or outrage, as if it were unusual,” notes Foley.
“They regard the camps as their mission field and see everything that leads up to their imprisonment as training for that most grueling of missionary services. For North Korean Christians,” says Foley, “the imprisonment is when missionary service truly begins.”
A 75-year-old Australian missionary who traveled to North Korea as part of a tour group has been detained there, his wife said. John Short had with him some Gospel tracts in Korean “which seem to be at the core of the detention,” his wife said in a statement Wednesday.
“It is alleged he is being asked questions such as, ‘Who sent you?’, ‘To what organization do you belong?’, ‘Who translated this material into Korean?'” his wife, Karen Short, said.
Short, who lives in Hong Kong, went to Pyongyang on Saturday. The next night, police questioned him at his hotel and took him into custody, according to the statement.
Short has been arrested multiple times while doing evangelical work in China “for speaking out about brutality against Chinese Christians,” according to a biography on a religious website named Gospel Attract. In the 1990s, he became “persona non grata” with Chinese authorities for almost two years and was unable to visit mainland China, the biography said.
North Korea “considers the spread of Christianity a particularly serious threat, since it challenges ideologically the official personality cult and provides a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the realm of the state,” a United Nations panel said in a report released this week.
“People caught practicing Christianity are subject to severe punishments in violation of the right to freedom of religion and the prohibition of religious discrimination,” the report by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea said.
North Korea’s security agency said Thursday it arrested a South Korean spy in Pyongyang who intended to rally anti-government forces, a claim that intelligence officials in Seoul quickly called ridiculous and groundless.
Outside analysts usually view such North Korean antics as a way to strengthen domestic support for leader Kim Jong Un – but specific claims that an individual spy has been captured, especially before an investigation is concluded, are unusual.
The North’s claim comes amid worsening ties. The Koreas had turned to tentative diplomacy after a spring that saw a near-daily barrage of threats, including North Korean warnings of nuclear strikes on Seoul and Washington. But tension has renewed since North Korea canceled planned reunions in September of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
The North Korean security ministry said that the South Korean initially said he was a Chinese citizen living in North Korea and then said he was a citizen of another country. The initial investigation found that the South Korean spent six years in a country bordering North Korea using religion to disguise anti-North Korea espionage activities, the North’s statement alleged.
Many South Korean missionaries work with North Korean defectors and border-crossers in China. One year ago, Kenneth Bae, an American missionary and tour operator, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after being arrested for alleged hostile acts in North Korea.
North Korea officially recognizes freedom of religion, but it tolerates only sanctioned churches, and activists and defectors call it one of the world’s worst places for religion.
Kim Ha-young believes her husband was murdered for helping North Koreans defect.
It’s almost two years since she found her husband, Kim Chang-hwan, foaming at the mouth in the Chinese city of Dandong on the North Korean border. The 46-year-old father of two had been working as a missionary, helping North Korean defectors escape across the border. Kim Ha-young was living in the border city as well, helping her husband.
She had just spoken to her husband 15 minutes earlier. “He told me he was meeting a North Korean defector and would then come home. A short time later I got a call from one of his colleagues who said (my husband) collapsed on the street and he told me to rush to the hospital,” she said. “When I got there he was dead.”
Hospital officials said Kim Chang-hwan had committed suicide by swallowing pesticides. His wife believes he was killed by a North Korean agent.
Refusing to accept the hospital’s explanation for her husband’s death, Kim Ha-young demanded the Chinese government conduct an autopsy. The autopsy report came back saying there was no poison in his system. Fearful of a cover-up, she went to the morgue before his body was cremated and collected samples of his blood on a glove and gave them to South Korean authorities on her return to Seoul.
The South Korean government report on that blood sample, reviewed by CNN, revealed levels of poison high enough to kill a person instantly.
“My husband was aware of the risk. People around us were telling us that it is a dangerous job because the North Korean government will severely deal with people who helped North Koreans defect,” she said. “We thought maybe the risk was prison or being expelled from the country by Chinese government. We never thought that it would cost his life.”
Fellow missionary Seok Sa-hyun said his friend had received threats in the past but nothing could stop him from helping defectors or providing food to North Korea’s malnourished children.