I will never forget the sound of anguish my mother made as we watched the recently released video footage of the American citizen — my brother, Kenneth Bae — in a North Korean labor camp. Our family had been devastated by my brother’s 15-year sentence of hard labor, but nothing could have prepared us for this.
My mother drew in a sharp breath and broke into heaving sobs, gasping for breath, at the sight of her son so diminished. We could see the heavy toll his long imprisonment, since November, had taken. Kenneth talked about his deteriorating health due to diabetes, enlarged heart and back pain, and pleaded with the U.S. government to help him.
It wasn’t just that he had lost so much weight and that his health was suffering, but that he seemed so broken. He choked up as he said, “I am my father’s only son,” pained that he could not be here to celebrate our father’s 70th birthday with my parents, who live in Lynnwood, Wash.
This wasn’t the larger-than-life Kenneth we knew. Back in the ‘80s, Kenneth loved to rock the Miami Vice look, the white blazer with the sleeves pushed up, hair gelled back. He was always surrounded by friends, hosting homemade meals and regaling friends with hilarious tales and his renditions of Elvis Presley tunes.
Kenneth was the fun-loving uncle who showered his nieces with affection. During family outings on the Edmonds-Kingston ferry, he would be the one chasing his nieces on the deck while the rest of the family hid inside from the wind.
Kenneth also had a serious side. He always did the right thing, even if it wasn’t the easiest route. Reluctant to be a burden to our parents, he dropped out of college at age 22 to support his family. After coming home late from working two jobs, he would spend hours watching his son sleep, unabashedly in love with his baby.
My brother is an optimist by nature, a hardworking husband and father, and a man of faith. Several years ago, he saw an opportunity that combined his entrepreneurial spirit with his personal convictions as a Christian. He believed in showing compassion by contributing to the North Korean economy in the form of tourism. He started his own tour company in China.
Introducing the untainted beauty of the land and the people of North Korea to the outside world was his livelihood and passion. In the past two years, he led more than 15 tours into the special economic zone of Rason, and that is what he was doing when he was arrested.
During these difficult eight months, our family has felt thankful for the support from so many, often from unexpected sources. Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, has been a public advocate for Kenneth’s release. Previous U.S. detainees Euna Lee and Laura Ling began a letter-writing campaign for Kenneth (letterforkennethbaegmail.com) because they remember letters were what sustained them during their months of captivity.
As we saw the letters pour in from complete strangers from all over the world, we were moved to tears that so many people cared about Kenneth’s plight. Even NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman has called on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to free my brother.
However, support has not come from the places we counted on the most.
We reached out to our state representatives in Washington, D.C., for help, and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., has been the only one who has shown any investment in Kenneth’s case. Outside of a few vague assurances from the office of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that the case was being monitored, there has been little response. No one from the office of Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has responded at all.
This was disheartening, to say the least. As a lifelong Democrat and a member of the American Federation of Teachers, I have always believed in the power of representation and advocacy, but now my faith has been shaken.
My family has been struggling to gain support for Kenneth’s case. We are an ordinary American family. We have no powerful political or media connections.
In 2009, Euna and Laura were working as journalists when they were detained in North Korea for five months. They were set free only after former President Clinton went to Pyongyang.
They had an incredible advocate in former Vice President Al Gore, who started the cable network Current TV where they both worked. They also had a powerful supporter in Laura’s sister Lisa Ling, a broadcast journalist who has been on The View and National Geographic television.
My family has been using our limited resources to bring attention to my brother’s plight, but we have been discouraged by the lack of interest.
This month, former Gov. Richardson made this comment about Kenneth during his talk at the Asia Society: “Somehow, the cries for his release … (have) not been as strong as other detainees. … I don’t want you all to forget about Kenneth Bae.”
This struck home with me, especially when we received recent letters from Kenneth pleading for more efforts to bring him home. I realized it was time for me to seek your support for my brother.
Time is running out as Kenneth’s health rapidly deteriorates. The North Korean government seems open to communication. My family and I ask for your help in rallying support for this American in need and imploring our government to take urgent and direct action to bring Kenneth home. Please sign the petition started by Kenneth’s son Jonathan at www.change.org/FreeKenNow.
Terri Chung teaches at North Seattle Community College and lives in Edmonds, Wash., with her husband and two children. She wrote this for the Seattle Times.