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85-Year-Old Korean War Veteran Joins Missionary in North Korea Prison System

A sad irony: Merrill Newman detained by North Korea as Kenneth Bae becomes longest-imprisoned American since Korean War.

An American missionary imprisoned by North Korea allegedly longer than any known American since the Korean War has received a fresh appeal from the United States' government. The reason: North Korea has detained another American—an 85-year-old Korean War veteran.

The New York Times reports that Merrill Newman was on a nine-day tour of the country with a friend and two tour guides, but was detained upon trying to leave last month. The Washington Post rounds up what is known about Newman from many media outlets. On Monday, the State Department issued its strongest travel warning against North Korea in 18 years, noting "the risk of arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens in North Korea."

Glyn Davies, the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Ambassador, is now asking Pyongyang to release both Newman and missionary Kenneth Bae, reports Voice of America. International Christian Concern claims that Bae, imprisoned since November 2012, "recently became the longest known American detainee in North Korea since the end of the Korean War."

Bae's mother, Myunghee Bae, wrote an op-ed for the Seattle Times on the November 3 anniversary of his imprisonment, based on her recent visit to see her only son. "I tried not to cry, but I could not help myself. My body shook at the injustice of having to leave Kenneth in North Korea," she wrote, asking readers to share the story of her son's plight.

More than 17,600 people have signed a Change.org petition calling for Bae's release.

Meanwhile, a Christian missionary from South Korea was also arrested this month in Pyongyang for reportedly trying to help North Korean refugees.

A South Korean newspaper recently reported the public executions of approximately 80 people in North Korea over an array of charges, including for possessing a Bible. Recently, Colorado-based ministry Seoul USA gained attention for air-dropping Bibles into North Korea via helium balloons.

CT has followed Kenneth Bae's situation since April. Previous updates are below.

American Christians previously held by North Korea include activist Robert Park, who was imprisoned in North Korea for seven months in 2010. Park entered the country without authorization intending to be arrested, but told CT after his release that he never wanted anyone else to enter the country as he did.

However, a friend and fellow Christian, Aijalon Mahli Gomes, followed suit. Jimmy Carter secured his release.


Update (Oct. 14): North Korea granted Kenneth Bae's mother permission to visit her son. The Los Angeles Timesreports that Myunghee Bae arrived in North Korea on Friday and said her son's health "is not so good" but "has gotten much better."

The two have not seen each other since Bae's arrest last November. The purpose of his mother's five-day visit is to encourage her son while he is still sick in the hospital.

"As a mother, I worry endlessly about his health," said his mother in a videotaped statement. "I want to see him, comfort and hold him in person. I miss him so much."

Although North Korea is still showing no sign of releasing Bae, some analysts think the surprising gesture of allowing Bae's mother to visit indicates North Korea's softening relationship toward the United States.


Update (Sept. 3): Days after North Korea rescinded U.S. envoy Robert King's visit to Pyongyang, basketball superstar Dennis Rodman has landed in North Korea. But he won't be asking for Bae's release.

King was supposed to arrive in Pyongyang Friday to negotiate amnesty for Bae; however, North Korean officials rescinded their invitation, citing U.S. military drills on the peninsula.

Now, Rodman has arrived for a five-day visit with his friend, Kim Jong-un. In a previous interview, Rodman told reporters he would try to negotiate Bae's release, saying he would be the "most powerful guy in the world" if he succeeded. But later, Rodman lowered his expectations and said his time with the North Korean leader would be focused only on basketball.

"I'm not going to North Korea to discuss freeing Kenneth Bae," he told Reuters. "I'm just going there on another basketball diplomacy tour."

CT has previously reported on Rodman, including his first visit to North Korea and his tweet in May asking for Bae's release.


Update (August 12): North Korea Moves Ailing Imprisoned Missionary to Hospital

Imprisoned missionary Kenneth Bae is receiving medical attention, according to a Swedish diplomat who visited Bae at a North Korean hospital. He has been imprisoned in North Korea for more than nine months and was sentenced to 15 years of compulsory labor in May.

But Bae's sister Terry Chung says the forced labor and stress of imprisonment are causing her brother's health to deteriorate rapidly. Chung noted that Bae is experiencing back and leg pain and has lost more than 50 pounds. According to Reuters, the Swedish ambassador to North Korea has been Bae's only foreign visitor.

Reuters also notes that U.S. officials have assured Chung that "quieter clemency efforts" are in the works on Bae's behalf. In addition to speaking publicly about her brother's condition Chung recently organized a prayer vigil, and Bae's brother started a petition online. But Bae himself urged greater U.S. involvement in a June 13 letter which Chung read to supporters: "The only way I can be free to return home is by obtaining amnesty," Bae said. "In order for that to happen it will take more active efforts from the U.S. government side."


Update (July 30): Supporters of missionary Kenneth Bae, imprisoned in North Korea for more than 9 months, had their hopes raised when headlines started flying that former president Jimmy Carter would travel to North Korea to free him. But while Carter has indeed performed this feat once before, the news proved premature.

Following Carter's discussion of his invitation to North Korea with National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Washington-based Radio Free Asia reported on July 28 that the former president planned to secure Bae's release.

However, after Carter's travel plans were confirmed by a White House spokesperson on Monday, the State Department and the Carter Center denied any such intentions later that day, either in connection with Bae or in the "personal capacity" cited by the White House. "President Carter has no immediate plans to visit North Korea," Carter Center spokesperson Deanna Congileo told Reuters.

Bae, who has been in contact with his family from prison, has been suffering from ill health and may be going blind, his sister told Seattle's King 5 in an interview published July 25. "There is a new note of desperation," Terri Chung told King 5, noting that the family could not release the details of Bae's letters for security reasons surrounding negotiations with North Korea.

Carter formerly negotiated the release of Christian Aijalon Mahli Gomes in 2010, driving speculation that he will perform the same service for Bae.

Gomes followed the footsteps of Robert Park, a friend and fellow Christian who was imprisoned in North Korea for seven months. Park entered the country without authorization intending to be arrested, but told CT after his release that he never wanted anyone else to enter the country as he did.


Update (May 10): In response to the U.S.'s claims that North Korea was not transparent in its trial of American Kenneth Bae, the country has released more information about the charges against the detained missionary. According to the Wall Street Journal, "One thing that wasn't a surprise was apparent confirmation of his involvement in missionary work, something that has seen other Korean-Americans detained in North Korea in recent years."

State news sources reportedly released confirmation that Bae was working with Youth With A Mission (YWAM), an international evangelical missions agency.

The YWAM press office was closed at the time of publication and could not be reached for confirmation.

"Bae is accused of preaching against the North Korean government in American and South Korean churches, of setting up covert 'plot-breeding bases' in China, of smuggling at least 250 of his supporters into North Korea under the guise of tourists, of producing anti-North Korea propaganda and bringing it into the country," Global Post reports.

Members of the U.S. government–as well other unlikely supporters–have issued repeated calls for Bae's release. Earlier this week, former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman, who visited North Korea last month, tweeted the following:

I'm calling on the Supreme Leader of North Korea or as I call him "Kim", to do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose.– Dennis Rodman (@dennisrodman) May 7, 2013


Update (May 2): The Wall Street Journal reports that the North Korean Supreme Court has sentenced American Kenneth Bae to 15 years of compulsory labor. Though Bae could have faced the death penalty, he received the lesser sentence without explanation.

In addition, WSJ reports that "North Korea has provided no details of the alleged crime committed by Mr. Bae, but activists in Seoul say he was interested in bringing attention to humanitarian issues and may have been detained for possessing images of vagrant North Korean children. Groups of orphans, known as "kotjebi," or wandering swallows, are found throughout North Korea."


[First published April 30, 2013, at 12:12 p.m. under headline "North Korea Puts American Missionary on Trial"]

North Korea has announced that it will try an American citizen who was arrested nearly six months ago for "crimes aimed to topple the [Democratic People's Republic of Korea]." If convicted, China-based missionary Kenneth Bae could face the death penalty.

But Bae's friends say he did not do anything wrong despite reports by North Korean state media that he confessed to the crime. According to the Associated Press, "friends and colleagues described Bae as a devout Christian from Washington state but based in the Chinese border city of Dalian who traveled frequently to North Korea to feed the country's orphans."

Bae was detained in November 2012. The State Department has not confirmed that Bae is indeed the man whom North Korea plans to put on trial.

"At least three other Americans detained in recent years also have been devout Christians," the AP reports. "While North Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the regime."

According to the U.S. State Department's most recent Report on International Religious Freedom, North Korea holds an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 prisoners for political and religious reasons. Among those held in 2010 was Christian activist Robert Park, who was imprisoned in North Korea for seven months.

Park entered the country without authorization intending to be arrested, but told CT after his release that he never wanted anyone else to enter the country as he did. However, a friend and fellow Christian, Aijalon Mahli Gomes, followed suit. Jimmy Carter secured his release.

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