GREENFIELD — The sermon lasted a little more than 30 minutes, no longer than those that have come before it on past Sundays at Brandywine Community Church.

But Kenneth Bae’s story was unlike any other that had been told in front of the congregation.

Bae, who was imprisoned for more than two years in a North Korean labor camp and accused of trying to overthrow the regime, spoke at the Greenfield church Sunday to provide a glimpse into a nation shrouded in secrecy that has become notorious for its human rights violations.

Bae, 47, was born in South Korea and moved to California when he was 16. He became a pastor after attending college in Oregon and later moved to China to work as a missionary, working to spread the word of Christianity to the impoverished, Bae said.

In 2010, after discovering a service geared toward tourists who wanted to visit North Korea, Bae began venturing into the country, taking note of its class and culture.

In hopes of doing missionary work — an illegal act in North Korea — Bae received permission from North Korean authorities to begin leading tour groups into the country from China.

In the two years before his capture, Bae led more than 300 tourists from 17 different counties into the nation.

On a routine trip to the nation in 2012, Bae realized he’d forgotten to remove a hard drive from his bag; it contained files detailing his mission work and also several downloaded videos of banned Western media coverage of North Korea.

The hard drive was quickly discovered, and despite his efforts to explain, Bae was detained and sentenced to 15 years in a North Korean labor camp.

During his presentation Sunday, Bae recounted times of physical hardship during his detainment, a time when he had little more than faith to hold him up.

During the first month, Bae slept and ate little and was interrogated for days at a time, eventually leading him to write a false confession in hopes the torment would cease.

He then worked from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week, in a labor camp, shoveling coal some days and farming soybeans others.

Since his release on Nov. 8, 2014, which came after lengthy negotiations between U.S. and North Korean officials, Bae has written a book, titled “Not Forgotten,” which provides a detailed account of his imprisonment and faith.

Bae was introduced Sunday by Mark Tabb, a pastor and author who contributed to Bae’s book.

“North Korea views this man as a terrorist,” Tabb said. “It’s hilarious to think that’s how they’ve labeled him.”

Throughout his presentation, Bae clutched a copy of the bible that his captors allowed him to keep during his captivity.

The harsh conditions of his confinement reinforced his faith, and eventually he made peace with the possibility he might never be freed, Bae said.

Bae was hospitalized several times during his captivity after the grueling labor and poor diet sent his body over the edge.

During one lengthy stay in a hospital, North Korean officials allowed Bae’s mother to visit him, he said.

“She walked into the hospital room, and we just embraced each other,” Bae said. “It was a very special moment.”

The next day, she visited again — this time with all the foods Bae had been fantasizing about since his detainment: Kit Kats, beef jerky and Hawaiian chocolate.

“Exactly what I was craving,” he said with a laugh.

Jackson Parker, a member of Brandywine’s congregation, said Bae’s talk provided a lot of food for thought.

“Hearing what he’s gone through is horrific … but it really shows how remarkable a man can be,” Parker said. “He went through all that but here he is today.”

Author photo
Daniel Morgan is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at (317) 477-3228 or dmorgan@greenfieldreporter.com.