It’s possible that Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old U.S. citizen of Korean descent, was up to something nefarious when North Korean authorities arrested him late last fall.
Maybe, as the North Koreans asserted this week in announcing his sentencing to 15 years of hard labor, he had committed “hostile acts” against a nation that over the years has redefined hostility. And maybe Mr. Bae ought to count his blessings. He was originally charged with trying to overthrow the government, a charge that could have led to the death penalty. Of course, if North Korea were to execute him, it couldn’t dangle him as bait.
Mr. Bae, a devout Christian, had opportunities to commit foul deeds, sort of. He ran a tour business in China that regularly made visits to North Korea — yes, there are tours to North Korea. Whether he was escorting travelers around or feeding or contributing to the adoption of orphaned North Korean children isn’t clear, but Pyongyang was offended. If it’s worth noting that North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, its’ worth adding that it means nothing. The Hermit Kingdom is decidedly cool to efforts from beyond its borders to spread Christianity.
Mr, Bae might be an afterthought were it not for the tendency of certain nations that are hostile to the United States and that are developing nuclear weapons to kidnap U.S. citizens. Iran, for instance, made life miserable for several American hikers who committed the heinous act of wandering into Iranian territory. As for North Korea, it has turned kidnapping Americans into an art form.
Pyongyang, amid its practiced bluster about America’s many perceived offenses against North Korea, might view its hostage — oops, prisoner — as a way to draw the United States back to the negotiating table. Or maybe young Kim Jong-Un, mindful that former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton made separate trips to North Korea to ensure the release of other kidnapped Americans, might aim a little higher than another visit by Dennis Rodman. That might at least boost Kim’s status among hard-liners, which could be reason enough.
President Barack Obama, who can’t bargain, at least not publicly, for Mr. Bae’s release, has urged Kim to free Mr. Bae for humanitarian reasons. Who knows, maybe that will work. After all, one of the things the world has learned about North Korea is that anything is possible.
Of course, that also means North Korea might strap him to its next rocket test.