Should Obama rescue the US missionary imprisoned in North Korea?

NAGANO, Japan — Kenneth Bae thinks Washington should try harder to get him released from a North Korean labor camp.

That was the Korean-American missionary’s main message in a video interview distributed last week by a Tokyo newspaper that pushes the North Korean line.

Bae was found guilty April 30 of campaigning to overthrow the North Korean regime from within, with prayer. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

The Obama administration certainly knows the drill for seeking his freedom: “Unofficially” encourage a former president to give face to the North Korean ruler in exchange for permission to take the prisoner home. (Former governors don’t seem to rank high enough, as New Mexico’s Bill Richardson discovered when he failed to meet Bae during a January visit.)

A State Department spokesman said of the Bae case in May, “There is no greater priority for us than the welfare and safety of our citizens abroad.”

Then why not go whole hog?

When I raised the issue on social media, a friend wrote: “What purpose is served by letting this guy rot in an abusive North Korean prison camp?”

Call me Scrooge, but I see five reasons why Washington — while assiduously checking on the prisoner’s condition and requesting his release — shouldn’t make the ultimate expenditure of diplomatic capital on Bae’s behalf:

1. This isn’t the US government’s fight.

US presidents, both sitting and former, should recognize that there’s no urgent national interest in Bae’s case. “This is pretty much the same deal as with Americans who bring marijuana or cocaine to countries with really severe penalties, up to and including execution, for fairly minor drug violations and then expect the US government to pull out all the stops in order to rescue them,” says Robert Delfs, an Asian affairs specialist currently working in one such country, Indonesia.

The Web-based news organization NK News obtained and translated a video of Bae’s 2009 sermon to a St. Louis Korean-American church. It shows how he got himself into his current fix by plotting to infiltrate hundreds of Christians, traveling as tourists, into the North Korean city of Rason, and by gathering local converts for a prayer campaign — “just as God made people enter Jericho and collapse it without force.”

In that sermon Bae said nothing to suggest any need for US government involvement. Rather, “I knew that Jesus wanted me to be a channel to the North.” While the missionary was staying in a hotel on the Chinese side of the Yalu, a river that forms part of the North Korean border, “Jesus woke me up around 4:30 a.m. There was a red sunrise. He said, ‘There will be a sun rising. Get ready.’”

A supporter’s Web page, #freekennethbae, asserts, “This is a spiritual war that must be fought with spiritual weapons.” The page notes the New Testament book of Acts’ account of how the early church prayed for its imprisoned leader. An angel from heaven then appeared and escorted Peter past the guards and out the locked doors. “Kenneth’s life and freedom is not at the mercy of the bartering government officials but the praying church,” the page says.

Amen to that.

A private sector angel — maybe Dennis Rodman, who has offered assistance; maybe evangelist Franklin Graham, whose family has developed warm relations with the Kim family — could take on the mission without mucking about in US foreign policy.

2. We’re running out of ex-presidents to send to Pyongyang to retrieve Americans who, eyes wide open, have violated North Korean law and gotten caught.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee apparently thought that getting videotaped illegally crossing the river border to enter the isolated country in 2009 was just the gutsy move that would boost their TV careers. They turned out to be right about that — thanks in no small part to Bill Clinton, who flew to Pyongyang just to bail them out. Book contracts rewarded the freed pair. (And now they’ve taken a high-visibility position on the Bae case.)

In 2010, Jimmy Carter apologized to the North Korean head of state to win the release of Ajalon Mahli Gomes of Massachusetts, another trespasser described as a “passionate Christian” and human rights advocate.

How many more living ex-presidents do we have left to send? Only the George Bushes, H.W. and W. The former, at 89, is wheelchair-bound.

3. The release of the Bae prison video clearly signals that North Korea wants the US to mount such a major effort — a good reason in itself to hold back.

The Pyongyang regime likes having such accidental hostages to deal with in hopes of luring the US into bilateral negotiations, excluding our ally in Seoul.

The ultimate goal is to persuade Washington to sign a peace treaty and withdraw South Korea-based US troops that, for the 60 years since the armistice in the Korean War, have deterred the militaristic North from reinvading.

In the earlier cases Pyongyang didn’t get far toward its main goal. Nevertheless, even advocates of the high-profile rescue missions acknowledge that the regime uses them to bolster its credibility at home.

In the Ling-Lee case, North Koreans “clearly got a lot out of this trip, with President Clinton, a former president coming to their soil,” New Mexico’s Richardson acknowledged to Rachel Maddow in 2009. Kim Jong Il “wanted international visibility for this,” Richardson added. He “wanted to shore up his domestic base. He wants to set up a succession for one of his sons. So, this is why he wanted somebody as high profile as former President Clinton.” (Kim died in December 2011. His son Kim Jong Un succeeded him.)

According to the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, Pyongyang used the Ling-Lee incident “to bolster then-leader Kim Jong Il, claiming that the US had ‘kowtowed’ to him.”

In the White House, “We all felt a sense of relief that the journalists, who had been mistreated, were safe and sound,” President Obama’s first-term National Security Council Asian affairs chief Jeffrey A. Bader writes in a new memoir.

“We also felt considerable irritation at American innocents abroad who stumble into such situations as if they were in downtown LA and then expect to be saved, with regard to the damage they do to US national security interests,” Bader continues. “The possibility of repeat performances by other gullible or misguided Americans, putting us in a similar box, worried us, and rightly so, although subsequent incidents did not involve as ‘valuable’ a prize as Ling and Lee were.”

4. Getting back to that bit about rotting in an abusive North Korean prison camp, the video released last week shows Bae in a comfortable room with a bed, a television, a desk, an electric fan and a radiator.

Assuming the video accurately depicts his surroundings, most North Koreans would say he’s living in luxury. Other foreign prisoners have fared far worse.

Bae’s labor, he says, is vegetable gardening — in what’s shown as a manicured, park-like setting — for eight hours a day, with Sundays and holidays off. He had been unaccustomed to farm work, he says, and “my health is not in the best condition” even though “everyone here is considerate and generous, and we have doctors here, so I’m getting regular checkups.”

Bae does not appear to be a denizen of North Korea's horrendous gulag. His “special prison” may be one of the high-level accommodations that the regime otherwise calls “rest houses,” like the one where Ling and Lee were kept. Or it could be one of those facilities to which high officials are sent for “re-education” when the ruling Kim decides they’ve screwed up and need some time in the political wilderness to correct their thinking.

The US government is doing its part, short of taking drastic measures. “We urge, and have urged many times, North Korean authorities to grant Mr. Bae amnesty and immediate release,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said last Thursday.

5. If Washington goes all out and wins Bae’s release, others are likely to march in his footsteps.

Many ethnic-Korean missionaries work underground spreading the Christian gospel in and from the parts of China bordering on North Korea. More than a few of them hold US citizenship and are supported by US churches.

Among American citizens arrested in North Korea recently, four out of five publicized cases are reported to have involved religious activities. Before Bae there was Korean-American Eddie Jun of California, arrested reportedly for “aggressive” missionary work.  Robert King, US special envoy for human rights and humanitarian issues, went to Pyongyang and got Jun released in 2011.

Earlier, there was Korean-American missionary Robert Park, from Arizona. Armed with a Bible and letters demanding that Kim Jong Il close all prison camps and leave office, Park illegally crossed the Tumen River border from China in 2009. He was released after 43 days, apparently without a visit by a high-level American. Meanwhile he seems to have inspired his friend Gomes to follow his lead.

As Kenneth Bae follower Jonathan Smith says on #freekennethbae, Bae’s “great courage was a major reason I took my first steps on North Korean soil a few years ago. He set a precedent for others to follow.”

For US diplomacy, it’s an unsettling precedent.

Veteran Asia news correspondent Bradley K. Martin is the author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.”