Lifestyle & Belief

North Korea may have imprisoned American Kenneth Bae for being a Christian missionary



Passersby watch a local television broadcast in Seoul on May 2, 2013 showing a picture of Kenneth Bae (R), a Korean-American tour operator detained in North Korea. North Korea said on May 2 it had sentenced Bae to 15 years' hard labor for 'hostile acts', stoking tensions with the United States.



Kenneth Bae, a US national sentenced to 15 years' hard labor in North Korea, was an evangelical Christian who planned to help bring missionaries into the communist country, according to reports.

Friends have described Bae, a Korean-American from Washington state, as a devout Christian who has made several trips to deliver aid to North Korean orphans.

But according to NK News, he first began traveling to Asia as a Christian missionary with the international evangelical organization Youth With A Mission. 

"I knew that Jesus wanted me to be a 'channel' to the North," Bae reportedly told the congregation at a Korean Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, MO, in December 2011. "This year, I'm working at taking several short-term missionary teams into North Korea."

The same year, Bae wrote on the church's website: "We have several of us getting ready to spread the gospel from Pyongyang to Jerusalem."

More from GlobalPost: US national Kenneth Bae sentenced in North Korea

Bae hoped to use the tour company he ran to bring Christians into North Korea, NK News states.

"I wondered, if more people could come and go freely, will the wall fall down more quickly? Wouldn't it be good if prayers and worshipers could live and stay in that place?" the website quotes Bae as saying in his 2011 sermon. 

It is not clear whether Bae's company, Nations Tour, had a specifically evangelical mission, however. Its tagline, according to its website (no longer operational) is: "Loving people, loving culture, and loving nature."

North Korea has not confirmed why Bae was detained or sentenced, stating only that he has confessed to "hostile acts" against the regime.

The country is officially atheist and Christians complain of extreme persecution at the hands of the state. At least three American Christians have been detained before now in North Korea, where the constitution declares: "No one may use religion as a means by which to drag in foreign powers or to destroy the state or social order."

Accounts by South Korean activists, however, say that Bae was arrested not for his religion but for taking photographs of starving North Korean children. Whatever his offense and despite Pyongyang's insistence to the contrary, many suspect he is being held as a bargaining tool for North Korea to use in negotiations with the US.

Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front...

More from GlobalPost: North Korea denies using US prisoner as bargaining chip