Kenneth Bae Credits Change.org for His Release from a North Korean Prison

Kenneth Bae is a U.S. citizen who was released in 2014 after spending over two years in a North Korean prison.

He came to Change.org’s New York City office to speak with Mike Jones and Kate Davey about his book, Not Forgotten, which depicts his ordeal in prison and how a petition started by his son on Change.org helped the international community notice his case and demand his release from prison.

Mike: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

Kenneth: Thank you so much -- it was unreal coming into this office. I first heard about the petition my son Jonathan started on Change.org in a letter I received while in prison from my sister Terri. And when my mom was allowed to visit me for 90 minutes in Pyongyang she told me there was more than 30,000 signatures -- I couldn’t believe it. And later in letters from my family, I learned it had 100,000 and then 170,000 signatures -- I was amazed. It meant so much to me that so many people cared -- it helped me keep going.

Mike: Can you tell us about your story and how you were first imprisoned?

Kenneth: I had a tour company that would take tourists into North Korea to see the unspoiled land, to walk, pray, and worship. In two years of doing this, I had brought more than 300 people through North Korea -- over 17 trips -- with no problem.

When you cross into North Korea through customs, you’re not allowed to bring any bibles that you plan on leaving in North Korea and you’re not allowed to leave any material such as videos that could be considered as “anti-North Korea.”

On my 18th trip on November 3, 2012, I wasn’t nervous because I knew I was following all of their rules, and I felt confident about bringing my tour of six people in with me. But as I crossed through customs, I realized I had an external hard in my briefcase that contained all my work of the past six years of worship and even some documentaries of North Korea including footage of the harsh conditions North Koreans experience.

As I put my case through the security scanner, there was nothing I could do -- there was nowhere to hide it, and I didn’t want to because I thought that would make it look more suspicious. They found it, but I was hopeful that because most of the videos were in English they wouldn’t understand  the content. But when they saw the footage of North Koreans, I was immediately questioned.

They asked me, “Who do you really work for?” As I was answering their questions, I was more concerned about the six people that I had brought in -- they were questioned, too, but allowed to return to South Korea. I was arrested.

Mike: What was your trial like?

Kenneth: My trial was 90 minutes long, which is how long North Korean trials are. There are many pretrial procedures with stating evidence and in my case, a forced confession -- mine took four and a half months. So by my trial, the decision was already made -- they already decided I was guilty.

Mike: When did you learn of the charges against you?

Kenneth: My first month of detainment -- I was charged with wanting to overthrow the government through my prayer and worship. They said, “You would have tried to train North Koreans to start an orphanage to raise Christians, and those Christians would raise more Christians, until Christians become a group that could threaten North Korea by dividing our unity and turning our people from believing in our leader to being against him.”

Under Article 60 of the North Korean constitution, I had two possibilities for punishment: death or jail.

Mike: Were you offered a lawyer?

Kenneth: I was asked if I wanted a lawyer, but I didn’t think it would matter and so I said, can I meet with the lawyer and decide, and they said no. So I passed on having a lawyer because I knew they had already made up their minds and just wanted me to have a lawyer so they could say it was a fair trial.

So I defended myself, but there was really no defending because I had already had to plead guilty before the trial. I accepted my “crime,” apologized, and asked for leniency for what I had done in their eyes. I asked that they use me as a bridge between North Korea and western countries to see if we can make progress.

It didn’t work.

The prosecutor recommended 15 years of hard labor in a prison camp.

Mike: Wow. Jonathan [Kenneth’s son] started his petition in July 2013 right as the sentencing started. Once you were in prison, were you able to stay in contact with your family or friends?

Kenneth: I was able to have a few calls and exchanged a few letters with my family and friends.

Mike: What was it like in prison?

Kenneth: I spent 735 days -- two years and five days in North Korea. Half of that was in prison and half was in hospital. I became very sick while I was there mostly from malnutrition, but also diabetes, and the labor was very, very hard. I lost 60 pounds in North Korea -- we were given three simple meals a day made up of some combination of rice, soup, veggies or noodles. You get very little food because the food for the prisoners and the guards and their families is based on what we can grow in the prison fields.

The prison I was in was built for foreigners, so very different than the prison for North Koreans who attempted defecting. I had a very simple, small area -- sort of like a suite -- with a bedroom with a bed, a small living area, and a bathroom. The prison for North Koreans is nothing like this -- what I had was luxury compared to what they have -- no beds, they sleep on the floor, no privacy.

The problem was it was very hot and humid all day, so the guards would leave my window open and all these bugs would crawl or fly in and after working in the field, each night, I would kill about 200 bugs in my room before I could fall asleep. But I wasn’t sleeping because the guards kept the light on in my room, so imagine a field of darkness and one light in the countryside -- the light in my room -- and all the bugs were coming in my room through the window and landing on my face. My hands hurt badly from my arthritis and the labor, so sometimes I couldn’t even kill all the mosquitos trying to bite me.

Kate: Kenneth, I am wondering when you were in prison, how did you manage hope versus the reality of your situation?  

Kenneth: There were moments that I wondered, just like anyone else, a person of faith or not, will I go home? But there were two things that I kept reminding myself and that gave me hope. One, every American that had been detained in North Korea went home -- it was a matter of time I thought. And two, the day of my detainment God assured me I’d be going home, there was a promise of God that I was holding onto. I knew I would be released one day, but no one had been there as long as me -- so I thought I would be gone after one year. So after a year passed, I had to live one day at a time and depend on God, and maybe next week, maybe next month. So I lived one day at a time hoping my release would come soon.  

I just lived day to day.

Kate: Thank you. I’m also curious about what Jonathan’s Change.org petition meant to you?

Kenneth: It really helped a lot. I wasn’t really familiar with Change.org before. But one thing I knew was that if the petition was being signed that means that’s news for President Obama -- especially because the number is picking up.

When Terri sent me a letter that more than 100,000 signed the petition I thought wow, people really do care and it’s going to make a difference. I think that the number of petitions really mattered -- it helped push the U.S. government to do something about it.

I definitely think the petition made a difference so that that’s why I am really asking that users keep signing for Otto (Warmbier) and Pastor Lim (both detained in North Korea) -- as the numbers become higher and higher, you can attract more attention and the government cannot ignore it. Change.org really makes changes and the transformations for my release.

Mike: What was the first thing you did when you got home? Did you go home first to Seattle?

Kenneth: Yes, this was in Seattle. When I came down the stairs and saw my mom -- that’s when I realized I am finally free. Obviously, it was a very emotional reunion, seeing my mom, Terri, my family and my friends I haven’t seen for many years. I did a little bit of a press conference, I just wanted to make a statement thanking everyone for praying for my release and working for my release and to say that it’s been a couple of really amazing years because I grew a lot, and even lost a lot of weight (laughs).

It was really late when we got home it was 10 p.m., and no one had had dinner, but all the restaurants were closed so we decided to just order pizza -- it was Papa John’s, by the way (laughs). Papa John’s heard that was my first meal out and sent me a hundred dollar gift certificate -- they said we’re glad that you enjoyed our pizza as your first meal back (laughs). So, yeah it was just a really emotional reunion.

But that first night, we didn’t go to sleep until 2:30 a.m., I was just sharing what happened in North Korea.

Mike: I am assuming you can’t do the work you did before, so what kind of work will you do now and do you miss that kind of work?

Kenneth: Yes, so I told my family I am glad to be back home, but I am sad -- I feel like I left the people in North Korea behind. I would love to go back and meet the people there and build a relationship there someday. My family and the U.S. government don’t want me to go back (laughs) so I don’t think it’s the right timing for me to go back.

But my heart is still with the people of North Korea, I saw their suffering, I saw the day-to-day of their life. I would still like to become the bridge if they allow me to be. Someday maybe I can go back as a blessing, rather than as a curse or a threat. If I cannot go in, then I will find some other thing to be helpful. Maybe helping North Korean refugees in South Korea or in the United States.

I would love to be a bridge of support for these refugees who really need a community. The reason I named my book Not Forgotten was because I wasn’t forgotten and I don’t want the North Korean people to think that I forgot them.

My challenge to people around the world is to remember and become concerned for the welfare for the people of North Korea. And then maybe someday North Korea can be free -- like we are.

Kate: I read that you said you bear no anger toward your captors, how did you let go of your anger and how did you deal with that?

Kenneth: In the Bible it says bless those who persecute you. I realized that they were just doing their job. And I was doing my job -- I was there as a missionary and they were doing their job to protect their country from someone like me from coming in -- in their terms disturbing the way they want to live. It wasn’t personal. They are not my enemy who is persecuting me.

I told everyone there that I would love to come back and see them and thank them in person because we had some genuine moments of kindness. A lot of the anger issues that I had, it was more toward the policy makers in the government making the decisions. But most of the people I met, are just people like us. I didn’t hold any anger toward them, I just wanted to get home soon.

Kate: Is there anything that you would like to say to the people who signed your petition?

Kenneth: I express my deepest gratitude. Each petition they sign really matters. As a result, I was able to come home. It shows the value of a life, when people are just doing something -- registering and clicking -- it adds up to changing a life. Because of their signatures and concerns for others, it really made the difference that I was able to come home.

And my family is eternally grateful for the people who signed. And also many of the people who signed sent me personal letters and that was an incredible blessing for me. They reminded me that Kenneth you weren’t forgotten, and each letter said Kenneth you deserve to come and we are standing with you.

So for me, everybody that signed the petition truly made a difference for me, their signatures told me I am worth something to someone and I need to live a life worth something in the future.

So I just want to say thank you to you guys.

Kate/ Mike: Thank you so much for coming. Our signers will really love to hear how they impacted your story -- thank you.

Kenneth Bae’s book Not Forgotten comes out today, May 3.

Mike Jones is Change.org's Deputy Director of North America. Kate Davey is a Change.org Storyteller.

What do you think of Kenneth's story? Tell us in the comments.