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To-Do After North Korea Imprisonment: Hug Mom, Eat Pizza

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KUOW Photo/Liz Jones
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[asset-images[{"caption": "Kenneth Bae speaks with reporters after touching down at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle. ", "fid": "95338", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201411/110914AJ_baeCrop2_0.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Northwest News Network/Austin Jenkins"}]]

Kenneth Bae’s family got the call they had been waiting for early Saturday morning. 

North Korea had freed him. 

Later that night, his plane touched down at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a military base south of Seattle. 

Bae, 46, carried luggage as he walked down the stairs of the plane to the tarmac. He had spent two years in a hard labor camp doing eight hours of labor six days a week, but he appeared upbeat.

First, he hugged his mother. Then he spoke briefly to reporters, thanking President Barack Obama. 

“I learned a lot,” Bae said. “Grew a lot, lost a lot of weight in a good way. But I’m standing strong because of you, and thank you for being there at such a time as this.”

His younger sister, Terri Chung, was at his side. A teacher at North Seattle Community College, she has spent the last two years tirelessly campaigning for his release. 

“We’re finally here,” she said. “My brother is home. We are so thankful.”

Bae had been sentenced in Pyongyang to 15 years hard labor, convicted of a Christian conspiracy to overthrow the North Korean government. Attempts by the Obama administration to secure his release were unsuccessful until last week.

That's when Obama sent Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on a top secret mission to North Korea in hopes of securing the release of Bae and another American, Matthew Todd Miller, 24. 

On Sunday, Bae ate breakfast with college friends who supported his family through this ordeal. 

His sister, meantime, went to church. 

The week before, she had updated the congregation about her brother’s imprisonment. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Undated photo of Kenneth Bae with North Korean children. ", "fid": "95340", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201411/KenBae_with_Kids_0.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Freekennow.com"}]]Now here she was, the pastor inviting her on stage to share the happy news. Friends hugged her in the aisle. They didn’t know Bae themselves, as he had left for China in 2006.  

A family man of faith, Bae started a tour company that specialized in tours to North Korea. It was his livelihood, family said, but “his heart was to be a personal touch-point of compassionate humanity to the North Korean people.”

He was arrested on Nov. 3, 2012 on a tour he had led at least 15 times. He was in the Rason Special Economic Zone, a port city described as a sliver of capitalism in North Korea; a casino there caters to Chinese tourists. 

Chung said previously that she suspected her brother’s Christian convictions may have landed him trouble. 

Outside church on Sunday, Chung described the family’s reunion so far – like Bae’s first meal at home. She had suggested Korean. Her brother said no way.

“He said, ‘Well, I don’t want Korean food. That’s all I’ve had the past two years. I want a burger or pizza,’” Chung said.

They settled on pizza -- Papa John’s, because it was open late. 

Chung said her brother is eager to catch up with friends and family and to share his experience with them. 

“You could tell he was so hungry for that,” she said. “I mean, as you can imagine, he was cut off from all of that for two years.”

She is certain he has changed. But she said she is also relieved to see traces of the same-old Kenneth – the larger-than-life storyteller who, according to a family bio, “loved to rock the Miami Vice look, the white blazer with the sleeves pushed up and gelled hairstyle.” 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Kenneth Bae with his daughter. Bae moved in 2006 to China where he started a tour guide operation taking people to North Korea.", "fid": "95341", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201411/WithDaughter1.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Freekennow.com"}]]“He is the guy who is always surrounded by friends, hosting homemade meals and regaling everyone with hilarious tales and his renditions of Elvis Presley tunes.” 

Chung said she would always remember Saturday night on the tarmac, seeing her brother step off the plane. 

“We had agreed Mom would hug him first,” she said. “When I saw that I was just, you know, wow.”

Year started with KUOW: 2006