By BosNewsLife Asia Service
SEOUL/PYONGYANG (BosNewsLife)– An American, who has been linked to a Protestant group spreading Christianity, was expected to spend New Year behind bars in North Korea on charges of “hostile acts against the republic”.
The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said that Bae Jun-ho had entered the country on November 3 through the far northeastern city of Rajin as part of a tour.
Rajin is part of a special economic zone not far from Yanji, China, that has sought to draw foreign investors and tourists over the past year. Yanji, home to many ethnic Korean Chinese, also serves as a base for Christian groups that shelter North Korean defectors.
“In the process of investigation, evidence proving that he committed a crime against (North Korea) was revealed. He admitted his crime,” the KCNA dispatch said. The North said the crimes were “proven through evidence” but did not elaborate.
SOUTH KOREA ACTIVISTS
Human rights activists in South Korea said they believed Bae to be Kenneth Bae, 44, who was born in South Korea and later moved to the United States where he received American citizenship.
Bae was reportedly acting as a travel agent specializing in taking tourists and investors around North Korea, while in reality he may have been a Christian missionary, said Cindy Ryu, Democrat representative of Bea’s home state of Washington.
“Many of us are third- and fourth-generation Christians and many of our pastors are originally from North Korea,” she explained in published remarks. “We want to visit our home country, but in North Korea you cannot say you are a missionary.”
The U.S. State Department said it was aware of the case, but declined to provide more details.
News of the arrest comes as North Korea is celebrating the launch of a satellite into space on December 12, in defiance of calls by the U.S. and others to cancel a liftoff widely seen as an illicit test of ballistic missile technology.
The announcement of the American’s detainment could be a signal from the North that it wants dialogue with the United States, The Associated Press news agency quoted South Korean analyst Cheong Seong-chang as saying.
In April 2009, a North Korean rocket launch took place while two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were in North Korean custody after allegedly trying to sneak into the country across the Tumen River dividing the North from China.
They were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor before being released on humanitarian grounds. Subsequently, three other Americans were arrested and eventually released by North Korea. All three are believed to have been accused of illegally spreading Christianity.
At least tens of thousands of Christians are believed to be held in North Korean prison camps for their faith, though some groups suggest that figure may be much higher.
Missionaries caught distributing Bibles and anyone caught worshiping secretly can be tortured or executed, or both, in North Korea, according to rights activists and defectors.
Christians often suffer as North Korea’s Stalinist system is based on total devotion of the individual to an ideology promoted by the late leader Kim II-sung and his successor and son, Kim Jong II, said observers who visited the country.
The influential U.S. magazine Foreign Policy said North Korea is one of at least five countries where war has been declared on Christmas.
The other four countries were Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Cuba and Saudi Arabia. In Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov’s administration has reportedly even banned the local version of Santa Claus from television.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez reportedly banned Christmas trees and images of Santa Claus from government offices in 2006 because he deemed them too American.
In Saudi Arabia, non-Muslim activities are banned in public, and expatriates and travelers in the kingdom are generally advised to keep their jingle bells to themselves.
Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro banned Christmas as a public holiday in 1969. In 1998, Cuba restored Christmas, but one Cuban newspaper warned its readers to beware of Santa Clause, called a symbol of American “consumerism,” Foreign Policy said.