American held in North Korea had pledged to ‘collapse’ country with prayer

May 20, 2013

Earlier this month, North Korean state media finally revealed the country's case against an American citizen named Kenneth Bae, who had been detained there since November. They listed three accusations: that he had smuggled in a critical documentary film, that he had plotted to bring the government's downfall through something called "Operation Jericho" and, oddly, that he had "infiltrated" dozens of students into a hotel in the North Korean city of Rason to establish a base of anti-regime activity.

The charges sounded peculiar, even absurd, perhaps reflecting North Korea's paranoia about religion in general and Christian missionaries in particular. But it turns out that, whatever actually happened after Bae crossed the border into North Korea last fall, he had pledged earlier to do something very much along the lines of Pyongyang's accusations.

James Pearson of NKNews unearthed video of a 2009 sermon Bae gave to a Korean-American church in St. Louis. Yeseul Loaiza transcribed and translated. In the video, Bae lays out his plan to bring dozens of Americans into Rason for a sort of mass prayer that he apparently believed would somehow bring the North Korean state to an end.

"We have a new project called 'Operation Jericho,'" he says. "We are going to send 300 people to pray in Rason. Just as God made people enter Jericho and collapse it without force, I hope the wall between us will collapse soon, through just our praying and worship in the Rason area." The plan bears an unmissable resemblance to North Korea's accusation.

Although it's not clear why Bae believed that praying in Rason would end the Kim Jong Un regime, he suggests that missionaries would be a "bridge" into the country and ultimately reunify South and North Korea. He appears to have been recruiting widely for the plan. "I’m now touring churches in the U.S. asking them to send 10 people per church to worship for one week in Rason," he says in the video. "Any American citizen may join. Just a few people is not enough anymore, many people should join in this project."

Bae need not have sought the end of the Pyongyang regime to bring about the government's wrath. Clandestine Christian evangelizing within the country's borders is strictly forbidden and punished. That doesn't make North Korea right to have imprisoned Bae, of course, but the self-made missionary surely would have known the risks of such a plan.

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Max Fisher | May 20, 2013