Can media attention get Kenneth Bae out of North Korea?

Kenneth Bae in China before his arrest. (Photo courtesy FreeKenNow.com)

Sixteen months after Lynwood tour operator Kenneth Bae was first detained in North Korea, another foreigner also accused of illegal missionary work was released by Pyongyang this week.

Australian John Short was freed and sent to his country’s embassy in Beijing on Monday, following two weeks in captivity.

Meanwhile, in spite of a flurry of media attention around his case in the last few months, Bae remains in the North Korean labor camp where he’s serving out the 15 year sentence handed down last year.

His family and friends continue to beg for the mercy of the North Korean government and say they welcome any form of advocacy for Kenneth Bae’s release  — even if it’s in the form of former NBA star Dennis Rodman.

Rodman, who has taken multiple trips to North Korea and recently called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un his “friend for life,” personally sang the leader a birthday song, and accused Bae of “wrong.”

He later apologized, blaming stress and drinking for his reckless statements on the case, and now claims he would be willing to take Bae’s place in prison — though no one seems to be taking the offer too seriously.

“However Dennis wants to help, he is welcome to do so,” said Derek Sciba, a family friend of Bae, in response to Rodman’s recent offers. “We need advocates.”

Amid the media circus, Haksoon Paik, Director of the Sejong Institute’s Center for North Korean Studies, a South Korea-based think tank, pointed out the negative effects the media can have on detainees and their release efforts.

“Media coverage is helpful in that the detainee should not be forgotten,” Paik said. “But it can also be unhelpful because it can distort and color the facts for political gain.”

Paik said that Americans tend to fall prey to North Korean law enforcement more frequently than other nationalities. He attributes detentions like Bae’s to the underlying political tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.

“As far as the relations between the U.S. and North Korea are concerned, everything is predominantly ‘political’ in nature and character,” he said.

He said one of these political factors is that North Korean leadership is still upset from the 2012 Key Resolve, where the U.S. used North Korea as the simulated target of nuclear attack during their B-52 strategic bombers and B-2 stealth bombers training.

As with the cases of Aijalon Gomes, a Boston-native imprisoned for illegally entering the country, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two American journalists who were imprisoned for illegal entry from China, and Merrill E. Newman, a Korean War veteran detained while visiting the country as a tourist, Paik believes Kenneth Bae has a chance for release if a compromise solution is found.

In Aijalon Gomes’ case, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter secured his release by personally flying out to North Korea, apologizing for Gomes’ illegal entry and promising that such instance would not happen again. According to the Obama administration, Carter’s actions were carried out as a private citizen, not on behalf of the United States.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee were released after former president Bill Clinton made unannounced visit to Pyongyang in 2009, unaffiliated with the Obama administration like Carter’s visit. According to reports by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) via CNN, Clinton had “an exhaustive conversation” with Kim Jong-il , Kim Jong-un’s predecessor, over “a wide-ranging exchange of view on matters of common concern.”

In a lower profile case, U.S. military veteran Merrill Newman was arrested on charges of war crimes in October 2013, at the end of a nine-day trip to North Korea as a tourist. Newman was released Dec. 7, 2013 shortly after the KCNA released a video of him signing a letter of apology and confession of war crimes he committed during the Korean War.

Kenneth Bae’s advocates have taken up a similar release tactics and continue to ask for mercy and hope for a pardon. Bae, like Newman, made a public apology in January. And Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, has been working with U.S. congressmen to secure his release.

“The worst thing that could happen is for Kenneth to be forgotten,” said Sciba. “The more that people know and are able to advocate for his release, the more it will help [his case].”

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