Sound Stories. Sound Voices.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You are on the KUOW archive site. Click here to go to our current site.

Kenneth Bae And Mom Embrace In Tearful North Korea Hospital Reunion

AP Photo/The Choson Sinbo, Mun Kwang Son

When Myunghee Bae stepped into the hospital room in North Korea on Friday, she wept as she embraced her son.

Kenneth Bae, a former Lynnwood man, was arrested 11 months ago as he guided tourists through the country’s northeastern region. The North Korean government accused him of “hostile” acts and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor. After several months, mostly spent farming vegetables, Bae grew ill, lost 50 pounds and was ultimately transferred to a hospital in Pyongyang.

At the hospital, Bae told his mother that he had gained 15 pounds, that his diabetes was under control and that the North Koreans were taking good care of him. Bae also has an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain, according to his family and friends.

“I came because I am worried that my son's health has worsened,'' Myunghee Bae told Choson Sinbo, a newspaper based in Japan that covers North Korean issues, according to The Associated Press. “I really wanted to see my son.'' 

Terri Chung, Bae’s sister, echoed her mother’s sentiment to KUOW.

“My mom is not a diplomat; she just went with the very simple desire to be with her son,” Chung said. “That’s the main goal of the trip. It’s been almost a year, and we just hope and pray every day for Kenneth’s homecoming. We can’t help but hope for the remote and extraordinary possibility.”

Chung heard how the first visit went through the Swedish ambassador, who was present for the first half hour before giving mother and son privacy. The Swedish ambassador acts as a liaison between North Korea and the US, as the two countries do not have diplomatic relations.

The US had planned to send an envoy in late August to negotiate Bae’s release, but North Korea canceled its offer to allow the envoy access.

Born in South Korea, Bae moved to the US where he became a citizen. A father of three now, he had been living in China for seven years.

“Kenneth was there legally and as a businessman, but you know, Kenneth was also a man with strong and personal Christian convictions and I suspect that’s what got him in trouble,” Chung said.

She said Bae had worked as a missionary in the past – and according to the AP, he had given a sermon advocating for a mass prayer session for the reunification of the two Koreas – but said she didn’t know much about why Bae was in North Korea.

“Maybe it was talking about his faith and sharing that led him into trouble," Chung said. "Maybe he was a little overzealous because he cares very much about people and his faith.”

Myunghee Bae is in North Korea for five days and four nights, Chung said. She is scheduled to see her son two more times.  

For now, Chung said that she tries to keep her expectations realistic but can’t “help but fantasize – wouldn’t it be great if they came home together.”

Sara Lerner and Isolde Raftery contributed to this report.

Year started with KUOW: 1998.