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Kenneth Bae’s unforgiveable ‘crime’: Christianity

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com

The outlook for Kenneth Bae, the American preacher/tour guide who’s been sentenced to 15 years hard labor in North Korea, is bleak.

That’s because his offenses against the system sound a lot more serious than those of three people rescued by former American presidents in great blazes of publicity in 2009 and 2010.
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Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the pair from Al Gore’s Current TV network, did nothing more than get caught by North Korean soldiers while filming along the Tumen River border between North Korea and China. Convicted and sentenced to 13 years, they were ripe for rescue when Bill Clinton flew in on a plane donated by a Californian tycoon, lunched for three hours with Kim Jong-Il and left with the pair safely on board.

And then there was Aijalon Gomes, who went to North Korea on a religious mission on Jan. 25, 2010, was sentenced to eight years, held for seven months — and whisked out by Jimmy Carter. Clearly North Korea got full propaganda value from both incidents though Carter may have been disappointed. Having met Kim Jong-Il’s father “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang in 1994, he no doubt expected to see Kim Jong-Il but had to make do with a letter from the “Dear Leader” thanking him for coming.

The fate of Bae, however, harks back to the very sad case of Robert Park who crossed the Tumen River into North Korea on Christmas Eve 2009 bearing a message for Kim Jong-Il. The message was simple: quit as North Korea’s leader and, before you do, free all the prisoners held in your gulag system.

One reason Gomes, who’d been going to the same evangelical church in Seoul as Park, said that he entered North Korea was to help his soul mate. Gomes never saw Park, of course, but Park was freed after 45 days in captivity after saying he’d been wrong all along about the North and recanting all that he’d said.

Bae’s case would appear totally different from those of either Park or Gomes. Those two did indeed enter North Korea illegally. Bae was a legitimate visitor, running a tour group from China across the Tumen River to visit the special economic zone at Rason, a short drive south of the river. It’s a routine trip for which you get permission to go while in Yanji, the major city closest to the river crossing.

Park, Gomes and Bae, however, all have a deep belief in Christianity. In addition, Park and Bae share a common Korean heritage — and a desire to spread their beliefs among North Koreans.

Park’s crusading spirit was all too obvious. He was full of missionary crusading zeal. Bae had to have been more discreet. The guessing, however, is that North Korean security people discovered that he was carrying literature, or CDs, or USB sticks containing religious material that he planned to spread among contacts inside North Korea. His “crime” may not have been as terrible as Park’s crazy message — but was far more offensive than Gomes’ simple illegal entry.

What did happen to Park to make him recant? I met him once for a long conversation, talked to him on the phone a few times and had a number of email exchanges.

He’s not saying just what happened, but he did tell KBS that the “scars and wounds of the things that happened to me are too intense” and he would never “be able to have a marriage or any kind of relationship.” In other words, he was totally beaten up, some say by screaming North Korean women.

Park in his messages to me repeatedly accused the North Koreans of “genocide” against their own people and said he was dedicating his life to publicizing and combating their “crimes against inhumanity.”

Suffering from severe depression, he’s often been hospitalized for psychological treatment and has threatened to take his own life. I told him many times that he has to keep going, to persevere, that he won’t be able to convey his message if he’s no longer around.

You’ve got to hope that Kenneth Bae will not be so ill treated and that he, like Laura Ling and Euna Lee and Gomes, will be freed to live happily ever after.

The case of Park, and the North Koreans’ fear of Christian influence, so antithetical to the state-ordered worship of their own leaders, raises alarm bells.

The worst fear of the ruling elite in Pyongyang is that people will begin to believe in some other faith, to realize there’s another way. The powers-that-be cannot tolerate defiance of their state religion.

Kenneth Bae, if he was spreading Christianity, challenged a system that exists in fear of such an assault on its foundations.

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