Kenneth Bae: Can the U.S. Save this Missionary Trapped in North Korea?


Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, is set to land this week in Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, to negotiate the release of American Kenneth Bae, who was sentenced to 15 years at a labor camp for alleged state subversion.

Bae, a tour guide and Christian missionary, was detained and arrested in November while leading a tour group through the northern part of the country. He received his sentence in April during the height of tensions between the U.S. and North Korea over the latter's long-range missile tests. The State Department is hinging its hopes of a release and pardon on Bae's health as the 45-year-old suffers from diabetes, liver problems, a bad back, and an enlarged heart.

Although King said he has received no guarantees of Bae's release, there is reason to be optimistic. While North Korea is known for its unpredictable nature in the diplomatic sphere, its rhetoric doesn't often match its action. Analysts consider the most recent missile tests in May not an escalation, but rather an indication that North Korea was communicating its to negotiate, despite statements issued from Pyongyang. 

Negotiations will be a litmus test as to whether relations between Washington and Pyongyang stand the chance of improving after the standoff this past spring. It will also be a test of young leader Kim Jong-Un's diplomatic skills, as this is the first time he has had to deal with negotiating the release of an American prisoner.

Bae is not the first American to be tried and convicted in North Korea. He is the sixth known American to have been detained there since 2009. The previous five were released without serving their sentences. King's last trip to North Korea was two years ago when he negotiated the release of California native Eddie Jun, who had been arrested for unauthorized missionary work.

Given the success of other American releases, Bae will probably return to the United States, especially considering his poor health. Another mitigating factor in Bae's potential release is the recent news of an agreement between North and South Korea over the formation of a joint management committee for the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The factories at the complex ceased operations back in the spring amid North Korea's defiance over the testing of long-range missiles. By successfully negotiating with South Korea, North Korea is showing its willingness to make deals with its purported enemies.