The Prisoner: Questioning the Kenneth Bae Narrative

By | March 23, 2013 | 1 Comment

Kafka 2

Dennis Rodman may fancy deepening his friendship with Kim Jong-un in North Korea this coming summer, but the country is hardly all fun-and-games for every foreigner within its borders. As the following article points out, an American tour guide, Kenneth Bae, remains in North Korean custody, and there are still multiple questions about why that is the case. Perhaps there are additional reasons for his incarceration, ones that go beyond the sort of regional military tensions that have inspired the US State Department to issue a new travel warning for would-be-travelers to the DPRK. Adam Cathcart reaches into his bag of readings to provide new insights into the politics and possibilities surrounding Bae’s detention. Please note that views re: Cheong Seong-chang contained in the translation are those of the publishing organization, AAFC.- Christopher Green, Assistant Editor

The Prisoner: Questioning the Kenneth Bae Narrative

by Adam Cathcart

This past November, Korean-American citizen tour operator Kennth Bae (Bae Jun-ho) traveled with a handful of businessmen through the Chinese city of Yanji and into the North Korean Special Economic Zone of Rason, where he was arrested by North Korean authorities. Some six weeks later, on December 21, 2012, his case became known to the world when the North Korean state media reported that he had been charged with indistinct crimes against the state.

In the absence of any further information from Pyongyang, a report from the Associated Press asserted that Bae would probably be used as a North Korean bargaining chip in negotiations with the United States.

The opportunity for such negotiations with significant Americans occurred almost immediately when, on January 8, 2013, former Governor Bill Richardson ventured to Pyongyang with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and “fixer” Tony Namkung.

One of the explicitly stated goals of the visit was to extract this new American prisoner from North Korean custody; it also gave Bill Richardson a chance to talk about how the time had come for the US and North Korea to start breaking bread, or pork ribs, together. Just as US citizen-reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee had been pardoned by Kim Jong Il and then escorted home from Pyongyang by President Clinton in 2009, so too was Richardson hoping to bring Bae home.

However, not only did Bae not join Richardson on the former Governor’s ride back to Beijing, virtually no news was released in the aftermath of the visit about Bae’s case. The North Korean state media implied that Richardson and Schmidt had raised human rights issues while in Pyongyang that prompted Rodong Sinmun to say that “the American gentlemen” had “prattled” on about morality “like venereal disease patients” and deserved to have their faces spat at. Meanwhile, Bae’s captivity has languished on; a single op-ed in the Tacoma News-Tribune and a short editorial in the Seattle Times seem to have been the only column inches devoted to Bae’s case in national or local presses.

Why was the Richardson mission unsuccessful in gaining Kenneth Bae’s release? And what do we really know about why Bae was arrested? Should we in fact expect to see Kenneth Bae used as a North Korean “bargaining chip” in getting the US to agree to talks with Pyongyang?

An article published in Paris the day after KCNA announced Bae’s arrest provides some answers to the above questions, and can also lay claim to the title of most in-depth public look at the context for the arrest.

The article approaches events not so much via the prism of US-DPRK negotiations (which have very much their own momentum and motivations), but in the light of North Korea’s own criminal procedures and how deviant tourists are treated in the DPRK. The article also questions the key narratives put forth by the AP and the Kookmin Ilbo as possible grounds for Bae’s arrest and detention.

The fact that the article was written by the pro-North Korea group (AAFC/France-North Korea Friendship Association), lends particular interest.  Virtually alone among such groups in Europe, the AAFC produces quite a bit of fine writing and independent analysis. Their website almost always rewards a visit, whether it be via analysis of the Moranbong Band, or a discussion of daily life (and even the gulag problem) with North Korean diplomats in attendence. Because the AAFC has close ties to North Korea’s small but active diplomatic corps in France (a February 10 event with Yun Yong-il being a good example), there is also a very slim possibility that the following interpretation of the Bae case was encouraged or otherwise partially sourced by those North Korean friends.

In any event, the following story amounts to a “new source” with regard to the present case and at the very least should causes a rethink of whether or not Kenneth Bae will ever be seen again, much less play a even a marginal role in what is likely to be a rather intense round of US-DPRK diplomatic chess and interactions.

A Frenchman congratulates a DPRK representative for successfully launching a satellite.

Congratulations in Paris for DPRK representative Yun Yong-il on his country’s successful launch of a satellite. | Photo courtesy AAFC.

Association d’amitié franco-coréenne, La RPDC a arrêté un citoyen américain d’origine coréenne, Pae Jun-ho (The DPRK has arrested an American citizen of Korean origin, Bae Jun-ho),” Association d’amitié franco-coréenne (blog), December 22, 2012. [Translated, with links added, by Adam Cathcart.]

In a dispatch dated 21 December 2012, the agency KCNA of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) announced the arrest of a US citizen of Korean origin,  Bae Jun-ho in  Rason. While arrests of foreigners in the DPRK are rare, precedents indicate that they have sometimes led to high-level diplomatic talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

KCNA reported the arrest on its territory of an American citizen on the grounds of a criminal offense – which has not been specified – but was admitted to by the person concerned. KCNA stated that the case was being followed by the Swedish Embassy in the DPRK, [the body] which,  in the absence of US diplomatic representation in Pyongyang, is responsible for the interests of US citizens in North Korea:

American Arrested in DPRK for Committing Crime (KCNA, December 21, 2012)
American citizen Pae Jun Ho who entered Rason City of the DPRK on Nov. 3 for the purpose of tour committed a crime against the DPRK. He was put into custody by a relevant institution.In the process of investigation evidence proving that he committed a crime against the DPRK was revealed. He admitted his crime. Consular officials of the Swedish embassy, which look after interests of the US in the DPRK, visited him Friday. Legal actions are being taken against Pae in line with the criminal procedure law of the DPRK.

The Associated Press (AP), which has a permanent bureau in Pyongyang, confirmed point by point the dispatch of their North Korean counterparts, providing clarifications: Bae Jun-ho (whose American name is Kenneth Bae, surnames “Pae” and “Bae” corresponding to two different transliterations of the same name Korean) is 44 years old, and was born in South Korea before being naturalized as an American living in Washington. He led a travel agency specializing in trips for tourists and businessmen to North Korea, and when he was arrested at Rason, he was [in the process of] accompanying a group of five Europeans.

Moreover, as the American journalists at AP stated, the city of Rason has the status of a special economic zone, and is located near the Sino-Korean border and Yanji, China. Yanji, [noted the AP], is a rear base [une base arriere] for Christian groups engaged in the exfiltration  of North Koreans seeking to defect from their country. AP, however, has given no evidence to prove whether Bae Jun-ho was, or was not, in contact with these groups.

Seeking not to complicate his release, members of the family of Mr. Bae did not want to talk to the press. We at AAFC sincerely wish that the media will respect their wishes, as this is an extremely painful situation for them.

Ken Bae was arrested in Rason (   / 罗先).  His whereabouts within North Korea are presently unknown.  Map via RadioKorea.

Ken Bae was arrested in Rason (라선 / 罗先). His whereabouts within North Korea are presently unknown. | Map via RadioKorea.

As to the nature of the offenses committed which [might] qualify as a crime in the criminal legislation of the DPRK, several explanations have been advanced. The AP has obviously been very cautious [in asserting what Bae's crime allegedly was] owing to a lack of confirming sources. According to a South Korean daily paper, North Korean officials reportedly found a hard disk in the possession of Mr. Bae which contained sensitive information about North Korea. According to anti-communist activists in South Korea, Mr. Bae would have taken pictures of orphanage for humanitarian action that would have been regarded as anti-DPRK … [original punctuation]

The latter explanation, however, presents a contradiction: If Bae’s goal was to help orphanages, doing so in conjunction with the North Korean authorities for the final delivery of aid, as other NGOs present in the country do, such pictures would then have been taken with the full knowledge of Bae’s North Korean guides. Never has such a situation before led to the arrest of a foreign visitor to North Korea. (Indeed, the heaviest sanction is that the pictures are erased at the request of the North Koreans.) However, had the photos been taken in secret [prise en cachette], then they could have had a purpose other than humanitarian action. But a single snapshot usually does not justify taking the [extreme] measure of arresting the photographer: the penalty would be a simple expulsion, after the confiscation of equipment and the offending photos.

Image via The Brigade

Image via The Brigade

During the numerous trips to North Korea by delegations of the AAFC, [we have] never heard reports of a single case where foreign visitors were arrested. Of the thousands of people in foreign groups who have traveled to North Korea via [lors des deplacements de] AAFC, only one case, reported in 2005, arose where the North Koreans threatened a tourist with deportation because of what they saw as repeated criticism of their political system and their leaders. But even this threat [of expulsion] was not implemented.

The arrest of Bae Jun-ho, who was listed among the top KCNA stories on December 21, can thus be seen as a rare situation.

When the North Korean authorities have doubts about whatever motive a given person might have to seek to visit their country, they do not issue visas. And such an assumption is hardly rare for any state when it deems a visitor to be undesirable: Does not the entry form for the United States ask the applicant to agree to a long list of affidavits in which it appears that, among others, communist militants are not welcome?

Image via The Brigade

Image via The Brigade

While situations of expulsion – or, indeed, arrest – lead to legal entanglements [imbroglios juridiques], the refusal of a visa contrasts as the simple implementation of the sovereign right of a State; it is a non-appealable dispute. In this case, in all likelihood, Mr. Bae Jun-ho – whose professional activities could justify the suspicion of North Korean officials, as a number of spies use jobs in travel agencies as cover – was arrested due to activities in the DPRK, and, after a relatively long investigation  lasting a month and a half since his entering Rason November 3 until the announcement of his indictment on 21 December, [would appear to be] pending trial.

Cheong Seong-chang is one of the best South Korean experts on North Korea; he also happens to be fluent in French and trained in France, where he published the well-documented (but now dated) book Ideology and the North Korean System: Kim Il-Sông and Kim Jong-il (L’Harmattan).  Cheong told the AP that the arrest, rather unusually, would serve as “a pretext” for North Koreans to reopen dialogue with the United States, following the launch of the rocket Unha -3, which could lead to new international sanctions against the DPRK. Mr. Cheong’s appealing interpretation was not questioned by the AP journalists.

The problem is that it does not coincide with the dates of the arrest of Mr. Pae on November 3, an event which occurred well before the announcement of the rocket Unha-3, an event which, Mr. Cheong takes after his government in asserting, will lead to new sanctions that will require the assent of China in the Security Council.

Cheong Seong-chang in 2010, via Daily NK

Cheong Seong-chang in 2010 | via Daily NK

In addition, Mr. Cheong seems to take for granted that Bae’s arrest amounts to “a pretext” for a maneuver of the North Koreans, in spite of the fact that we have shown that there are strong suspicions about the acts allegedly committed by Mr. Bae. One other specific point, unfortunately not mentioned by AP, is that Cheong Seong-chang works for the South Korean Ministry of Defense and is therefore linked to the South Korean central intelligence agency (which itself works closely with the CIA on North Korea). Cheong therefore has the ideal profile leading along Western public opinion, making an argument congruent with the interests of the United States that gives credence to the idea of the unjust arrest of Kenneth Bae that would allow Washington to negotiate a better position vis-a-vis North Korea.

Had the US government been more comfortable with respect to Bae’s case (something which they might have learned, at least, through the five Europeans who accompanied him), they would not have waited for the publication of the North Korean dispatch on December 21, and could have used their traditional opinion leaders in the US or Korean media [to gain the upper hand with respect to the case]. However, we fully agree with the analysis of Mr. Cheong Seong-chang when he observes that high-level negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang could resume on this occasion.

Recall the previous case, dating from 2009, of two American journalists of Asian origin who had illegally entered North Korea to do a report on North Korean defectors. They had made a major professional mistake in relying on a smuggler who, it seems, informed the North Korean authorities and allowed their arrest in flagrante delicto. To our knowledge, they, like all other Americans arrested in North Korea since the end of the war, were finally able to return to the United States by benefiting from the leniency of leader Kim Jong-il, following a trial in which they had pleaded guilty.

Euna Lee and Laura Ling -- via One Free Korea

Euna Lee and Laura Ling — via One Free Korea

But beyond their personal fate, another event attracted media attention: former US President Bill Clinton personally came to Pyongyang to negotiate their release with leader Kim Jong-il, providing the possibility of renewed diplomatic dialogue between the United States and the DPRK. These events occurred in the spring and summer of 2009, a few months on either side of a North Korean nuclear test on 25 May.

Not every American citizen arrested in North Korea benefits from such a mobilization of state. Some ten years earlier, another Korean American, James Kim, was arrested for suspected espionage. Released after several weeks in prison, a few years later he even met the leader Kim Jong-il and went on to found the first private university in the DPRK, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST).

However, in the case of James Kim, we can reasonably speak of a judicial mistake, and neither North Korea nor the US gave any media attention to this case (unlike the case of Bae Jun-ho). As in the West, there was also a form of indemnity paid by North Korea after this miscarriage of justice: The compensation for James Kim was that he was able to realize his dream of conducting cooperation projects with North Korea, as no other Korean American had done before.

Sources: AAFC, AP (cited by The Seattle Times ) KCNA (dispatch of 21 December 2012).

Additional Reading:

KCNA, “Minju Joson Accuses U.S. of Expanding Spy Networks Overseas,” December 18, 2012

Nick Miller, “‘Internal Spies Spy on other Internal Spies’ : Ken Gause on Totalitarian Control in the DPRK,” SinoNK, August 19, 2012.

Len Ericksen, “North Korea interrogating US journalists as spies,” Tampa Bay Examiner, March 24, 2009.

HuffingtonPost, “Dutch Tourist Held By North Korea Was Forced To Sign Confession,” August 15, 2011.

Seattle Times, Get to the Bottom of Kenneth Bae’s Detention in North Korea,” Editorial, March 22, 2013

One Comment

  1. I don’t know if I am beating this drum again, as I’ve only just caught up with this article. Kenneth Bae organized a group called the Jericho Project, which, according to his spokeswoman, was meant to bring the walls surrounding the DPRK “tumbling down.” Upon learning this, his interrogators would have rushed to the North Korean translation of the Bible (There is one) to find out what Jericho was and what happened to it. They would not have been pleased with what they found: According to the Book of Joshua, “[the Israelites] put to the sword all living creatures in the city; men and women, young and old, as well as oxen, sheep and asses.” The only person allowed to live was“the harlot Rahab” because “Rahab the harlot had hidden the messengers whom Joshua had sent to reconnoiter Jericho.” Further, “On that occasion Joshua imposed the oath: Cursed before the Lord be the man who attempts to rebuild this city, Jericho…”
    I doubt that the interrogators would have believed the good pastor when he protested that he hadn’t read the Bible.

    As for the Euna Lee and Laura Ling fiasco, what were the border guards supposed to think when they saw two middle-aged Asian-looking women lurking in the pre-dawn hours on a notorious people-smuggling route? Any policeman will tell you that the pimps, with their scars and tattoos, don’t approach young girls themselves — they pay unscrupulous women to lure the girls into hotel rooms, cars, across borders, etc.

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