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Kenneth Bae


Country: North Korea

Detained: November 3, 2012

Status: Released


Kenneth Bae’s case in North Korea is an important ShowTrial to understand for a number of reasons, not least of which are the impediments to direct negotiations that have directly impacted this case and others like it.  Bae owned and operated a company that offered tours through North Korea’s special economic zone, an area set up by the North Korean government to promote economic growth through foreign investment.  While giving tours, Bae was unexpectedly arrested and later convicted on charges of attempting to overthrow of the government of North Korea.  Negotiations for Bae’s release have been difficult, as the US does not have a direct diplomatic ties with Pyongyang.  Former United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson visited North Korea, but was not able to engage in negotiations for Bae’s release.  On two occasions, the U.S. also prepared to send a human rights envoy to North Korea, but the regime in Pyongyang rescinded its invitations just before each trip was scheduled to occur.   Barriers to direct negotiation are a hallmark characteristic of ShowTrials in countries like North Korea, Iran, and Cuba.  History has shown that the key to negotiations in such situations often involve the engagement of third party countries.  Many of those potential third party countries, like China for example, are not U.S. allies.  Dealing with non-allied countries, and indirect negotiations is a complex process that is best executed under the direction of experienced crisis management consultants.


Kenneth Bae is a Korean American who moved to the United States at the age of eighteen.  He graduated high school at the age of twenty and attended the University of Oregon.  In order to support his family he withdrew from the university after two years.

Bae’s faith and entrepreneurial spirit led him to China where he started the company “Nations Tour”.  The company offered tours through the North Korean special economic zone, an area set up by the North Korean government to promote economic growth through foreign investment.

Kenneth had led tours through the area on numerous occasions, but on November 3, 2012, as Bae led a tour group through the special economic zone, North Korean authorities arrested Bae.

Case Report

North Korea’s official news agency did not confirm Bae’s arrest until two weeks after the incident.  It was not until a month and a half after his arrest that North Korea announced that Bae would be charged with “hostile acts against the republic”.

“North Korea’s Supreme Court sentenced Kenneth Bae to fifteen years of hard labor.”

He was convicted on charges to overthrow the North Korean government with a plan called “Operation Jericho”, setting up bases in China to overthrow the government, inciting North Koreans to overthrow their government, and conducting a smear campaign against North Korea.

Due to health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure, fatty liver, and back problems, Bae spent six months in a hospital.  However, he has returned to a “special camp” where he spends eight hours a day performing farm labor.

Kenneth’s case is being managed by his sister. She has been outspoken in the media. Some hoped Dennis Rodman would successfully negotiate for Bae’s release.  The retired basketball player travelled to North Korea for “basketball diplomacy” on a few occasions.  However, his outbursts of North Korean propaganda quashed any belief he would facilitate a release of Kenneth Bae.


On November 10, 2014 after being detained two years, the longest time any U.S. citizen has been detained by North Korea, Kenneth Bae was returned home.  His release came after US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper visited North Korea and delivered a letter from President Obama.