UPDATE MAY 02, 10:52AM ET: NK NEWS has learned that President Jimmy Carter told colleagues today, “I have had no invitation to visit North Korea and therefore have no plans to go.”
SEOUL – Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American currently being detained by North Korean authorities, has been sentenced to 15 years of “hard labor,” the KCNA reported this morning.
Bae is the owner of China-based tour company Nations Tours, NK News exclusively revealed at the time, and was arrested while on a five-day trip with other tourists in the Northeastern port city of Rajin. Rajin and Songbon are known collectively as “Rason” a region that funcations as one of North Korea’s Special Economic Zones (SEZ).
South Korean media reports following his arrest speculated that Bae was held for possessing illegal material, after an unidentified source told the Kookmin Ilbo a hard disk was found among the tour group. Other reports said Bae may have tried to secretly take pictures of “kotjebi” (꽃제비), lit. “flowering swallows,” a North Korean term for homeless children looking for food and shelter.
Bae is known to be a devout Christian. His Facebook page, which has since been closed, links to an Ohio-based organization called the Joseph Connection, which runs Christian missions in China under the motto “That the Least of the Least are Reached!”
“We are believing that the doors will continue to open for Sharon and I to begin work in the North [Korea], to place our feet on the this soil for the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ,” John Geissler, who runs the missionary organization with his wife, wrote in a July 2010 newsletter.
“Kenneth is a personal friend, I’ve known him for about 3 years,” Geissler told NK News via email. “He does not work The Joseph Connection.”
“Nations Tours was a tour agency that I used to book my group into North Korea. It was a tour agency promoting cross-cultural experiences,” said Geissler.
It is not uncommon, however, for Korean-Americans to run missionary operations in or around the Sino-North Korean border region. “What Bae did is likely to have gone beyond merely possessing illegal materials,” Matt Reichel, director of the Pyongyang Project, told NK News. Customs officials in the Rason area are careful to check all incoming visitors for religious materials, and regularly confiscate offending items from tourists.
“Rason borders China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where there already exists a thriving underground Christian missionary presence,” Reichel, whose organization operates an office in Yanji, told NK News.
North Korean guides and officials based in Rason are accustomed to religious organizations attempting to operate in the area, which is a popular location for humanitarian ventures. A 15 year sentence would therefore be particularly harsh given the large numbers of missionaries in the area.
“The charges that have been levied against Kenneth Bae have nothing to do with proselytization; I don’t think he has been detained on religious grounds,” Tony Namkung, who accompanied Bill Richardson and Google’s Eric Schmidt on a trip to North Korea in January, told NK News in an exclusive interview.
“I don’t think it had anything to do with the distribution of Bibles,” Namkung said. “I think there were two charges that had been levied upon this man. One, plotting to overthrow the North Korean regime, and two, plotting to kill the leadership – without specifying who,” Namkung told NK News.
“Likely Kim Jong Un, though his name was never mentioned. The story has never been quoted by the outside press, even though I was quoted as saying that those were the two charges, but nobody ever picked up on that. At the same time, it’s true that the North Koreans never announced it publicly until recently, but even then they only mentioned the plot to overthrow the regime, nothing about Kim Jong Un,” Namkung said.
North Korea has previously imprisoned American citizens for breaking domestic laws, the most high-profile case being the case of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who illegally crossed the Sino-North Korean border when attempting to speak to refugees.
Their detention resulted in a visit to Pyongyang from former U.S. president Bill Clinton, who eventually secured their release from a sentence of 10 months hard labor.
President Jimmy Carter may soon travel to North Korea to help free Bae, Yonhap News said on Tuesday. An anonymous source told the Seoul-based news agency that Carter had been “invited” by North Korea and that Carter’s office was in contact with Secretary of State Kerry about the potential trip.
NK News, however, has learned that Jimmy Carter will not be visiting North Korea, and he has not received any formal invitation from Pyongyang.
Carter has visited North Korea three times, securing the release of U.S. prisoner Aijalon Mahli Gomes during his second trip in August 2010. The late Kim Jong Il spurned an opportunity to meet Carter and a visiting Elders Group delegation in April 2010, instead using the occasion to visit China.
Additional reporting by Chad O’Carroll in London and Justin Rohrlich in New York.
Updated 1457KST with additional information from Tony Namkung interview.