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American Detained in North Korea Had 30 Guards to Himself — And They All Wanted to Know About the US

Kenneth Bae was imprisoned in a foreigners camp in Pyongyang for 735 days on charges of trying to overthrow the government. Now he's promoting a new book and campaigning for the release of a Canadian pastor who is going through the same thing.

An American missionary who spent almost two years in a North Korean labor camp, where 30 guards watched over only him as he toiled for more than eight hours a day, says they wanted to know all about America.

How much does a house cost? Does everyone really own their own home and car? Those were the questions Kenneth Bae was asked by locals who were clueless about life in the United States.

Now Bae, who was imprisoned in a foreigners camp in Pyongyang for 735 days on charges of trying to overthrow the government, is promoting a new book he penned about the ordeal — and campaigning for the release of a Canadian pastor who is going through the same thing.


Hyeon Soo Lim, the 62-year-old leader of a 3000-member church in Mississauga, Ont., has been in detention since last February and is serving out a sentence of life with hard labor for crimes against the state. North Korean prosecutors claim he entered the country more than 100 times under the false pretense of humanitarian work, while actually trying to overthrow the regime through religion.

But while Lim's family has said it's unlikely he was doing missionary work on the trip, since he had been deliberate about not doing so every other time, Bae had, in fact, been bringing foreigners into the country to not only create cultural understanding and help its economy through tourism, but also to pray for the country's population.

Jailed during his 18th visit to the hermit kingdom, after accidentally bringing in a hard drive containing mission reports and video clips about North Korea made by western media, Bae was taken from his hotel to the countryside by two agents, where he was interrogated and forced to write out his confessions. He details his experience in his book, Not Forgotten: The True Story of My Imprisonment in North Korea.

"They wanted to know why I'd brought such disturbing material into the country," he said in an interview with VICE News.

But the guards were never satisfied with his answers — the questions only ended four weeks and 300 pages of written confession later, with Bae admitting that he was a missionary.


For the next two years, he'd work six days a week, waking up at 6 am, having breakfast, praying for an hour, and heading to the beanfield, where he'd stay from 8 am to 6 pm, doing farming work. He would be hospitalized multiple times and lose 60 pounds, burning far more calories than he was consuming through tiny meals of soup, rice, and vegetables.

But still, he said, as a foreigner, his imprisonment — during which he had a room to himself, with a bed and a toilet in it — was likely cushier than what North Koreans themselves must go through, his guards told him.

Over time, casual conversations with them turned into meaningful exchanges about the differences between life in the U.S. and life in North Korea, he said.

"There's nothing to envy, really," said Bae, recalling those who lived near the labor camp walking three to four miles every day to get to work. "That's normal daily life for them."

"At the beginning, it was difficult, but because I speak the language, I was able to communicate," he said. "They were curious because what they were told by the media is that 1 percent of people [in the US] are rich, and 99 percent of people are poor, that most people live in the street, most don't have a house or car."

"I told them that's not true," he said. "They want to know how much money you need to live with a family of four, things like that. I told them most people own a house and a car, and they said, 'That can't be right.'"


'I told them most people own a house and a car, and they said, 'That can't be right.''

Bae returned to the US at the end of 2014 after President Barack Obama arranged for US intelligence director James Clapper to fly to North Korea and secure the release. Although he doesn't know the details of the diplomatic maneuvers that took place behind the scenes, Bae has advice for the Canadian government on how to bring Lim, whom he believes is imprisoned in the same place he was, home safely.

Among Lim's crimes, according to North Korea, are harming the dignity of the supreme leadership, trying to use religion to destroy the North Korean system, disseminating negative propaganda about the North to Koreans overseas, helping American and South Korean authorities to lure and abduct North Korean citizens, and aiding their programs to assist defectors from the North.

According to Lim's family, the pastor was imprisoned during a regular humanitarian mission to the country, where he looks after a nursing home, an orphanage, a nursery, as well as various other projects.

When Canada's Global Affairs department expressed dismay at the "unduly harsh sentence" handed down to Lim and Trudeau said "issues about North Korea's governance and judicial system are well-known," North Korea denounced the statements as "malicious slander," and slammed the Canadian government for picking a "quarrel with with our fair and just judicial decision."


"At this point, instead of pointing out whether Pastor Lim is innocent, asking the North Korean government to release Pastor Lim for humanitarian reasons, like health issues and also because this is too much for him to handle, as a goodwill gesture, I think that needs to be the focus," said Bae.

Bae also considers an interview that Lim did with CNN in January, after his sentence was handed down, a sign that the North Korean government is willing to negotiate.

Related: North Korea Blasts Canada for 'Daring to Pick a Quarrel' Over Life Sentence of Pastor

Global Affairs Canada has been unwilling to disclose details of their efforts to bring Lim home beyond consular visits and being "fully engaged in the case since it began," with some criticizing them for not being vocal enough. Canada has a "limited policy of controlled engagement" with North Korea.

Former cabinet minister Stockwell Day, who became involved at the request of Lim's family, told VICE News that while Canada's government's efforts are "well-intended," there may be a "lack of understanding of the North Korean mindset."

"The people I'm hearing from in North Korea are wondering how seriously our government is taking this in comparison with US cases," he said.

Day said he's had discussions with high-level Canadian officials, directly involved in Lim's case, and has seen no real breakthrough. He's also been in touch with Lim's family, who have chosen to remain behind the scenes so as not to be seen as being critical of the North Korean government. They are "deeply, deeply troubled," Day said.


"It should just be a clear, concise, direct message from our prime minister to their leader that we want [Lim] to be released," he said. "Other [statements] on their government and what they do should be an issue for another day, but this should be seen as a standalone item that we want to see addressed. You don't attach anything else to it."

But diplomats should be careful to strike a balance between aggressive action and allowing the North Korean government to save face, Bae said.

"In my case, the American government didn't criticize North Korean action," he said. "The reason I was there for 735 days is obviously because of a difference of opinions."

Watch the VICE News documentary, Launching Balloons into North Korea: Propaganda Over Pyongyang:

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk