A sentence of 15 years’ hard labor for American Kenneth Bae is totally disproportionate and inhumane for anything the man may have done. But probably he did do something not too smart for an American in North Korea.
I have done some not-smart things myself in places like that. In 1972, traveling in the Socialist Republic of Romania, I gave the book, “Seven Days in May” to a man who approached me in a public gardens.
“Is it a political book?” he said.
“Naw,” I said. “Just a novel. About some generals who try to overthrow the government.”
“That’s political,” he said, stuffing the book in his coat.
I felt a thrill doing that. It was a tiny act of subversion against the government of Nicolae Ceaușescu. It was also a risk, but I was willing. My blue passport would protect me.
I wasn’t caught. But other Westerners have taken greater risks and had lesser luck. Consider these four cases, all from 2009:
• In the military-ruled Republic of the Union of Myanmar, American John Yettaw swam across a lake to impose himself on Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest, and to present her with the Book of Mormon. His act added to her sentence. And for entering a restricted zone, staying overnight without notifying police and “illegal swimming,” Yettaw was sentenced to seven years in prison. The regime released him three months later after a diplomatic mission by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.
• In the Islamic Republic of Iran, guards on the border with Iraq arrested Americans Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, who said they had been on a hike(!). Iran accused them of being spies. It released Shourd after 18 months and the men after 26 months. Each release required the payment of ransom.
• In the Kingdom of Thailand, Australian Harry Nicolaides was arrested because his 2005 novel, “Versimilitude,” which was self-published and reportedly sold only seven copies, contained an insult to the king. Nicolaides had lived in Thailand and knew of the law about insulting the king, but said he thought it didn’t apply to him. He was sentenced to three years. Australia’s government got him out in five months.
• In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, border guards seized American TV journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who had crossed briefly from China and turned back. North Korea sentenced the women to 12 years’ hard labor for their territorial infraction, and released them five months later after a visit by former President Bill Clinton.
And now Kenneth Bae, tour operator and missionary Christian. His captors say he “collected and produced several anti-DPRK videos … and showed them [to] many people in a bid to egg them onto activities to bring down the DPRK government…”
Imagine that: a tour operator bringing down the communist monarchy of Kim Jong-un. And he was also reported taking pictures of starving children.
For all the fanciful exaggeration of the charges against him, Bae is in a serious fix. North Korea is the most paranoid government on the planet. And Bae is ethnically Korean. Note that his captors use his Korean name, Pae Jun Ho. To them, he is one of theirs.
But he is an American, and our government needs to get him out of there. A diplomatic rescue is, however, going to cost something, and more than money.
I am reminded of hikers who get lost in the mountains and are rescued at public expense. I am glad when they are found, and that the capacity exists to find them. But I also recall the warnings that people who go to dangerous places should keep in mind where they are.