President Barack Obama is meeting Friday and Saturday with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Cybersecurity and economics aside, the human rights issue should surely come up. The New York Times reports more than 30 organizations are urging Obama to call for the release of at least 16 political prisoners in China, including 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
Let’s not forget Kenneth Bae, the American tour operator from Lynnwood. He was living and working in China when he crossed the border into North Korea last November. Bae has languished within North Korea’s notorious prison system for seven months now. In May, he was reportedly transferred to a new site to begin a 15-year hard labor sentence for supposedly plotting to overthrow the government. On May 2, Amnesty International raised serious concerns about his lack of access to a lawyer.
It might be a tall order to demand President Xi get involved in Bae’s case, but there’s little doubt China exerts a huge amount of influence over North Korea. (See this news story from The Wall Street Journal.) I hope President Obama takes the opportunity to ask Xi about what role he might be able to play in finding out more. As an act of goodwill, Xi could join an international chorus requesting Kim Jong Un to release Bae on humanitarian grounds. Doesn’t have to be a public display. Working behind the scenes is fine.
Set aside the sensitivity around North Korean politics. Obama should humanize Bae, who is known to be deeply religious, but is also a husband and father. His family, hesitant to speak publicly under the current circumstances, anxiously awaits his safe return.
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson failed to gain access to Bae during a January visit to Pyongyang. A tweet from Dennis Rodman, a personal pal of Kim Jong Un, so far hasn’t worked. (Rodman has said numerous times he plans to return to North Korea in August.)
We must keep trying. If China can help, North Korea might really listen.