Is this the documentary that got a U.S. citizen sentenced to hard labor in North Korea?

May 9, 2013

In November, North Korean officials arrested an American citizen named Kenneth Bae who was on what was supposed to be a five-day guided tour of the North Korean city of Rason. Bae was charged with unspecified crimes against the state and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

Now, finally, North Korea has released, through official state media, its case against Bae. They appear, based on write-ups of the release in the Associated Press and NK News, to have made three charges:

(1) They say that Bae gave lectures and/or Christian sermons (he's reportedly quite devout and, North Korea says, was preaching in China as a missionary) denigrating the North Korean regime. Though he's accused of calling for the government's downfall, notoriously sensitive Pyongyang officials might have mistaken criticism for subversion.

(2) North Korea also charges that Bae "infiltrated" 250 students into Rason and tried to establish a base of anti-regime activity in his hotel there. It's not clear what any of this means but don't be surprised, again, if North Korea is exaggerating.

(3) Finally, he's accused of smuggling inflammatory, anti-Pyongyang literature into the country. That appears to include a 2007 National Geographic documentary about sneaking one of the magazine's reporters into North Korea. It's called "Don't Tell My Mother That I Am in North Korea."

The documentary shows two filmmakers pretending to be regular tourists filming all the sites on a 21-day tour. Much of the video is quite innocuous and follows the tropes of now-common North Korean tourism videos: a visit to Kim Il Sung stadium, a tour of the statues, peeks at Pyongyang residents farming in back-alleys.

But there is one bit of the documentary that may have been of special interest to Bae and, potentially, to North Korea. At about 18 minutes into the video, the National Geographic filmmakers visit what they say is one of three Catholic churches in Pyongyang. And that's exactly what it appears to be.

Make no mistake, religion is not free in North Korea. Christians have been persecuted there, according to scholar Andrei Lankov's new book on the country, with "great ferocity," officially labeled as part of the much-abused "hostile class."

One North Korean defector told the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in a report on treatment of Christians in the country, that the churches are an elaborate show. "North Korea does have Christians and Catholics. They have buildings but they are all fake," the defector said. "These groups exist to falsely show the world that North Korea has freedom of religion. But [the government] does not allow religion or [independent] religious organizations because it is worried about the possibility that Kim Jong Il’s regime would be in danger [because] religion erodes society."

It's still not clear what exactly led North Korea to arrest and sentence Bae, what they mean by accusing him of sermonizing against the Kim Jong Un regime or why they say they believe that he was building a base of ideological resistance out of his hotel in Rason.

But carrying the National Geographic video would be an oddly specific and banal charge to make without some basis of truth. It would be far, to be sure, from the most bizarre thing that North Korea has done this year or even this week. Ultimately, we will probably not really know what happened until after Bae is released, as most captive Americans are once North Korea gets some sort of concession from the U.S., if we ever fully do.

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Anup Kaphle | May 9, 2013