PYONGYANG, North Korea (BP) — Kenneth Bae, an American citizen sentenced to 15 years in a North Korean labor camp, reportedly confessed to committing a “serious crime” against the communist dictatorship where he has been held for 15 months.
In a videotaped “press conference” released Monday (Jan. 20) through China’s state-run news agency Xinhua, Bae said he had not experienced abusive treatment in North Korea, according to CNN.
“I would like to plead with the U.S. government, press and my family to stop worsening my situation by making vile rumors against North Korea and releasing materials related to me, which are not based on the facts,” Bae said in the video.
“I want to be pardoned by the North as soon as possible and return to my beloved family. For that, I ask the U.S. government, press and my family to make more active efforts and pay more attention,” Bae said.
Terri Chung, Bae’s sister, released a statement in response, saying the family understands he has been convicted of crimes under North Korean laws.
“Our family sincerely apologizes on Kenneth’s behalf,” Chung said, according to CNN. “Kenneth has also acknowledged his crimes and has apologized. He has now served 15 months of his sentence, but faces chronic health problems. We humbly ask for your mercy to release my brother.”
CNN noted that North Korea has a history of releasing false “confessions” from prisoners. In December, an 85-year-old Korean War veteran, Merrill Newman, was released after being forced to give a false confession.
Bae’s profile was raised earlier this month by a televised outburst from former NBA star Dennis Rodman, who later apologized for insinuating Bae had committed a crime. A family-run website advocating for Bae’s release says he is a devout Christian.
“Several years ago, Kenneth saw an opportunity that combined his entrepreneurial spirit with his personal convictions as a Christian,” the website, freekennow.com, states. “He believed in showing compassion to the North Korean people by contributing to their economy in the form of tourism.”
Bae, 45, was arrested in November 2012 as he was leading a tour group in one of North Korea’s special economic zones for foreign investors.
The U.S. State Department, in a statement Jan. 20, said it was aware of Bae’s reported confession.
“As we have said before, we remain very concerned about Kenneth Bae’s health,” spokesperson Jen Psaki said. “We continue to urge the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] authorities to grant Bae amnesty and immediate release.”
The State Department continues regular, close consultation with the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang toward securing Bae’s freedom, Psaki said.
Reuters said Jan. 20 that following the confession, the United States offered to send Robert King, U.S. special envoy to North Korea, to Pyongyang to negotiate for Bae’s release.
“We hope this decision by DPRK authorities to allow Kenneth Bae to meet with reporters signals their willingness to release him,” an administration official told Reuters on condition of anonymity, adding that the United States was waiting for a response from North Korea.
Fox News reported that Bae was allowed to call home Dec. 29 because of the holidays, and that was the first time his three children had spoken with him since he was captured.
As the website advocating for his freedom explains, Bae started a tour company based in China in 2006 and regularly led groups to North Korea, “a remote country filled with stunning vistas and a people proud of their history and tradition.”
“His livelihood,” the website states, “was to introduce the natural beauty of the country and its people to the outside world as a tour operator. His heart was to be a personal touch-point of compassionate humanity to the North Korean people.”
In comments to Baptist Press Jan. 14, Bae’s sister said a friend who had gone on one of Bae’s tours described him as “an ambassador of peace and light in the world.”
“That captures what Kenneth was trying to do in North Korea,” Chung told BP. “He had the biggest heart for the people and the nation of North Korea, and he wanted to show tourists from Europe, Canada and the United States a different side to the country than what we typically see in the western media in the hopes of bridging the cultural divide.”
When he was arrested, Bae was on at least his 15th such trip. CNN reported that North Korea accused him of planning to bring down the government through religious activities.
North Korea was ranked as the world’s top persecuter of Christians for the 12th consecutive year in a report released Jan. 8 by Open Doors, which seeks to strengthen the persecuted church.
The officially atheist state practices a cult-like worship of the Kim family and continues to imprison from 50,000 to 70,000 followers of Christ in concentration camps, prisons or prison-like conditions, according to Open Doors. Possessing a Bible could result in execution or a life sentence in prison.
CNN estimated 200,000 people are kept in a network of prison camps in North Korea, and the U.S. State Department has placed North Korea on its list of “countries of particular concern” for its violations of religious freedom.
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Erin Roach. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).