AAJA Seoul: Tea Talk with Kenneth Bae

Otto Warmbier may have suffered a panic disorder, says former N.K. prisoner Kenneth Bae

Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American pastor who was imprisoned in North Korea for two years, says he was “surprised” at the death of 22-year-old American Otto Warmbier, but did not suggest torture by North Korea.


In an intimate tea talk with AAJA-Asia’s Seoul subchapter on July 1, he said Warmbier, who died June 19 after being held 17 months in the North, must have suffered a panic disorder in a highly stressful situation, and North Korea’s foreign hospital and prison would not have been properly equipped to help him.


Bae, who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor on charges of attempting to overthrow the North Korean government, said North Korea’s story that Warmbier never woke up from being given a sleeping pill “didn’t make sense” because hospital supplies were so limited. During Bae’s own imprisonment, his poor health as a diagnosed diabetic had been a topic of high concern among Bae’s family as they pleaded for his release. Bae believes that once Warmbier fell ill, North Korean officials were afraid to share the news with local embassies or the young man’s family, and kept it secret until they had the opportunity to release him.


North Korea sent Warmbier to the U.S. in a coma last month, shortly after American basketball icon Dennis Rodman visited the country. Warmbier died a week later. Rodman previously controversially claimed Bae deserved his sentence, which Bae has said was the “catalyst” for his release.


Warmbier’s recent death has thrown a wrench into already tense relations between the U.S. and North and South Korea. But Bae, who continues to fight for peace and freedom for the North Korean people through humanitarian and missionary work, says the world has misconceptions about the isolated country’s motives.


Bae’s arrest in 2013 was a result of his own mistakes, he said. On his entry to North Korea with a tour group of some 40 missionaries, customs had detected a hard drive he accidentally brought. It carried photos of a National Geographic special on North Koreans receiving eye surgery, which officials saw to show the country negatively. Once detained, Bae was interrogated by the national security bureau, which punished him with nonviolent methods that are not uncommon in South Korean elementary or middle schools. He recalled one incident when, being pressed for a “confession,” he was forced to kneel on a concrete floor for six hours. “They didn’t hit or torture me, but to me it was torture,” he said. An official also threatened to throw a glass ashtray at his face at least twice in four weeks but did not.


He wrote 200 pages of testimony while detained, but interrogators were not satisfied. “They wanted me to be truthful, but they didn’t like my answer,” he said. Actually, Bae was hoping to buy his missionaries time to flee to China for safety, he said. When the government realized what was going on, they became increasingly upset, he said. Eventually, Bae was forced to sign a confession that he was trying to overthrow the government. Bae reasons that in their point of view, perhaps he was, as he was bringing Christians into the country to pray.


Bae kept expecting to be released quickly, but one month went by, then two. Every American went home, and most went home within five months, he said. Prisoners would be punished to work overtime if they didn’t complete their tasks, often leading to 10-14 hour work days. After shoveling coal and carrying rocks, he was sent to work indoors. Bae lost 27 kilograms in three months, yet his diabetes somehow vanished while detained. But the timing of his detainment was precarious as tensions between North Korea and the U.S. ratcheted up amid Pyongyang’s weapons tests.

Bae realized he was a “political bargaining chip.” His North Korean keepers told him that the sentence did not depend on the trial, but rather the attitude of the U.S. government at the time. “It wasn’t something to go to prison for 15 years for,” he said. His keepers told him that if he wasn’t American, he would have gone home a lot sooner. Bae was held as leverage, and North Korean officials told him “what to say and what not to say” in his limited media contact with CNN and Choson Sinbo. North Korea had expected that a “respectable figure” would come to the country and apologize for Bae’s wrongdoings, perhaps akin to visits by U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter in decades past, but then-President Barack Obama never came to save him.


He was finally released after 735 days. For another year, he stayed silent to allow North Korea and the U.S. to resolve their tensions, he said. He finally first came out about the experience in May 2016, when he released his memoir “Not Forgotten: The True Story of My Imprisonment in North Korea.”


Bae believes that reunification will happen soon and suddenly, within the next 1-3 years. Next year, North and South Korea will mark 70 years — a biblically significant number — since they were born as two countries in 1948. The unpredictability of U.S. President Donald Trump may shake up the years-long stalemate. On top of that, South Korea’s liberal leader Moon Jae-in may be showing the warmest signs toward the North from the presidential Blue House in years, he said. “When the North Korea elite sees the liberal government, they feel like Moon is someone they can talk to” and negotiate their safety, Bae believes.


“North Korea has never been pressured like this before,” he said. “Kim Jong-un is different from Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. Now they’re a nuclear state — they will not give that up. There’s a big stake on North Korea.”


He would not feel safe bringing tourists back to North Korea following Otto Warmbier’s death, but he and other missionaries entered understanding the risks. North Korea is actively trying to thwart missionary work even in China, he said. Pyongyang’s media made the government stance against him clear for betraying the North by helping “traitor” defectors.


While the governments make up their minds, Bae believes humanitarian work should continue through the engagement of nongovernmental agencies so North Koreans know that people abroad support them. Bae hopes that President Moon’s background as a former human rights lawyer will push the humanitarian issue to the top of his North Korea agenda. Bae is particularly concerned for the well-being of the detainees, as medical care in North Korean prison and hospitals was limited. He hopes that following Warmbier’s death, the North may feel more urged to release their remaining prisoners.


When the time for reunification comes, Bae wants to be ready with Bibles in store and missionaries mobilized to bring them in 10 per person to share the Gospel. When he was finally released, Bae realized that hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people, were praying for him, and 77,000 people had petitioned for his release. In reciprocation, he is launching a “Nehemiah prayer petition” this month in several languages with the goal of gathering 1 million signatures of people praying for North Korea.