Former UO student Kenneth Bae sentenced to 15 years hard labor in North Korea

UPDATE 7:35 p.m.: Kenneth Bae was sentenced to 15 years hard labor by the North Korean Supreme Court, according to Reuters. North Korean news agency KCNA announced that the verdict was handed down on April 30.

Bae was held in November as a tourist and charged with attempting to overthrow the government. It is unclear what Bae did to merit the charges.

The Washington Post reports that Bae may have been possessing photos of homeless North Korean children when he was detained. South Korean media reports that former President Jimmy Carter was looking to visit North Korea in a possible attempt to bring Bae back to U.S. soil.

The sentencing comes in a time of tense relations between the U.S. and North Korea.


Former UO student Kenneth Bae is being detained in North Korea on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. In the coming weeks, Bae will be put on trial by the North Korean Supreme Court, and if Bae is convicted, he could be sentenced to death.

“There’s no parallel here to the legal procedures over there,” said Patricia Gwartney, a UO sociology professor who traveled with Statistics Without Borders to North Korea last year, where she volunteered at a private university in Pyongyang. “They act as, and are, one of the last socialist dynasties. ”

North Korea has held Americans captive before, including a situation in 2009 where two American journalists were held captive and sentenced to hard labor until former President Bill Clinton traveled to Pyongyang and negotiated a release with Kim Jong Il.

“It’s not uncommon for North Korea to get really upset with the U.S.” said Gwartney. “Every spring, the U.S. and South Korea do joint military exercises right off the coast of North Korea for six weeks, and it alarms them.”

Born in South Korea, Bae is a naturalized U.S. citizen who manages a tour company that takes trips to North Korea. Bae was a student at the UO from 1988 to 1990 but did not graduate.

“Ken and I pretty much hung out every day,” said Bobby Lee, a close friend from college, and now a policy adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber. “He loved being a Duck, but he had to leave the UO for personal things.”

Toward the end of his freshman year, Bae married and started a family.

“We lost touch after he left,” said Lee. “We were close, but he had to move on to a different track. He had to focus on supporting his family while I was still studying.”

Lee is actively spreading the word about Bae’s disappearance and continues to be in constant contact with Sen. Ron Wyden, Rep. Peter DeFazio, and former Gov. of New Mexico, Bill Richardson.

“They’re providing insight in the process,” said Lee. Even with the help of elected officials, Lee noticed that the process is not at all transparent – a sentiment that Sen. Ron Wyden’s office agrees with.

“We’re very aware of the situation, and we’ve been getting as many updates as we can,” said Tom Towslee, the spokesperson for Sen. Ron Wyden. “Their government has little to no transparency, and what we’re currently able to do is very limited.”

That’s not to say that government officials are giving up on Bae.

After the 2009 incident with American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, Kim Jong Il regarded President Clinton’s trip as an attempt at a diplomatic coup, and diplomacy between the two nations has been close to nonexistent. However, the United States is working with the Swedish Embassy, who was able to visit Bae in Pyongyang.

Lee’s current goal for his friend is to raise awareness of his capture and for places like the UO to not forget about one of their own.

“What Bae needs right now is for the Ducks to not forget him,” said Lee. “We’re going to help him, and one of the best ways to do that is to shed light on the situation. Ken loved it here, and he considered this place as a home. We need to shed light, and we need to start it here.”

Follow Craig Garcia on Twitter: @craigarcia

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