“If God is real, how are you still in jail?”

Kenneth Bae shares his experience in a North Korean labor camp, and the joy and strength that kept him alive

Kenneth Bae

Filling out a visa application, Korean-American Kenneth Bae pauses over the question, "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" He checks the "yes" box.

In April 2013, Kenneth was convicted by North Korea on charges of planning to overthrow the government and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

Working with the evangelical organization Youth With A Mission (YWAM), he was accused of preaching against the North Korean government.

Eight hours daily of heavy farm labor took their toll on him both emotionally and physically, and Kenneth prayed every day he might be returned home to his family. That prayer remained unanswered for more than a year.

"I was given a room by myself, divided into three sections: a small living area with a TV and desk, a bedroom, and a bathroom," he tells Christianity Today.

"In the morning, I'd get up at six, wash, and get ready for a meal. Then I had one hour before being sent to work in the field.

"I worked in a bean field, plowing and planting the seeds. The soil was half rock.

"After a few months of this routine, I lost a lot of weight. So they would send me to the hospital, where I would gain some of it back, and then return me to the labor camp. I suffered from malnutrition, arthritis, and other complications.

"Mainly I just focused on the work I was given, whether that was working the bean field, crushing core ash, digging a hole, moving rocks, or cleaning the road. I thought, 'I just have to take it one day at a time'.

"Thinking about my family or people back home was difficult. So I tried to block those thoughts. Oftentimes I would just sing – different praise songs, Elvis tunes, and songs I enjoyed in high school choir."

How will you know anything about God unless I am here?Most of the time, Kenneth felt miserable. He says what got him through was putting on the protection of God each morning by "reading the Bible, worshiping and praying, and asking the Lord for strength and protection".

Whatever strength this ritual gave him, the prison guards noticed it, and even started asking Kenneth for advice and counsel.

"Officially, I was known as Prisoner 103," Kenneth says.

"But when we were alone, sometimes [the guards] would say, 'Pastor, can I talk to you?' and we would talk about some problem at home. I would do family counseling and premarital counseling.

"They would ask, 'We are the guards and you are the prisoner. How come you look happier than us? Where does your joy come from?'"

When a human rights ambassador's visit to Korea was announced and he realized his release would soon be negotiated, Kenneth thanked the guards and sang them a farewell song in Korean.

"Don't go anywhere," one of them told him, he remembers. "We're lucky you're here. Stay a little longer, because we like talking to you."

"One day, a guard said, 'Pastor, if I believe in God like you, what's in it for me?' Another asked, 'If I want to believe in God, what do I have to pay the church?' I explained there is no price – that God wants to hear and answer our prayers, to protect us and provide for us. They had never heard anything like that before.

"At the end of the conversation someone said, 'You said God answered your prayers. But if God is real, then how are you still here?' I explained that God has different plans. 'Maybe,' I said, 'His plans include you. How will you know anything about God unless I'm here?' He said, 'That's true. I never heard anything like this before'."

Not forgotten

In November 2014 Kenneth was released and, after tearful goodbyes to the guards, returned home.

He says the experience has made his family stronger and closer than they had been before. "I guess it's true what the Bible says, that God was working all things to our good," he says referring to Romans chapter 8 verse 28.

"God is faithful," Kenneth concludes. "We go through difficulties in life, but God never leaves us, never forsakes us. We need to let the Lord do His work, and then depend upon Him during times of difficulty, whether that's a North Korean prison or anything else. [I want] to remind people that with God there is always hope.

"God didn't forget me. He hasn't forgotten the people in North Korea. He wants us to continue remembering those who are in darkness."

Kenneth wrote about his experience in a memoir called Not Forgotten: The True Story of My Imprisonment in North Korea.

As well as continuing his work with YWAM, Kenneth is starting a non-governmental organization for North Korean refugees and their children to help with their educational and financial needs.

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