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Should Obama rescue the US missionary imprisoned in North Korea?

Analysis: 5 reasons the US should avoid squandering diplomatic capital on Korean-American Kenneth Bae’s release.

kenneth bae television picEnlarge
A Seoul television broadcast shows a report and picture of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour operator detained in North Korea. (Kim Jae-Hwan/AFP/Getty Images)

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