ON the morning of Oct. 11, I woke up at 4 a.m. in Potonggang Hotel in Pyongyang, excited and nervous. I found myself repeating, “My son is here. I am going to see him today.” I could not believe I was there to visit my son, Kenneth Bae, who has been held prisoner in North Korea.
Sunday, Nov. 3, was the anniversary of the day my son, a tour operator, was detained. He has now been in a North Korean prison for more than a year. He is the longest detained American prisoner in North Korea in recent history. He was the first American to be sent to a labor camp.
Kenneth was tried and sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp, and he was hospitalized for two months due to his failing health. We hadn’t received updates since August, when we heard Kenneth had lost 50 pounds.
As we drove to the Friendship Hospital for my first visit with Kenneth, my North Korean guide pointed out all of the monuments, but my mind was only rushing to my son. What kind of condition will I find him in? Does he know I’m coming? How much time can I spend with him?
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When Kenneth saw me, he rushed to embrace me. He held me tight and cried out, “Mom!”
We just cried and held each other. But we had to contain ourselves quickly because the reporters from Chosun Sinbo were there taking pictures and video of our reunion. When we looked at each other, he smiled at me and led me to the chair by the bedside. The first thing he told me was “Mom, I am OK. Don’t worry.”
My heart ached to see my son in a hospital gown, confined to a small room. It suddenly became very real that he was actually a prisoner in North Korea. I held his hand and started to ask the same question over and over, “How’s your condition?” He reassured me his mind was stable and his medical condition was improving.
However, it was difficult for me to believe his words.
I was allowed to visit my son three times during my trip. I had spent the last 11 months missing and worrying about him day and night. I cannot describe how good I felt just to be with him.
We talked and talked without pause. He has been isolated for one year without anybody to talk to other than his guards and doctors. I could not imagine how hard that must have been for Kenneth, who has always been so outgoing and talkative.
We talked about families, friends, churches and his supporters. He told me he misses his wife and children very much. He wanted to convey his gratitude to the people who sent letters to him from all over the world.
He reads and rereads all 150 letters once a week to help sustain him through the whole ordeal. It pained me to see how starved he was for a connection to home and the outside world, alone and ailing in a foreign prison. I tried to reassure him that he was not forgotten.
The moment I had to say goodbye to Kenneth came too quickly. Despite the three visits, there was not enough time to convey all that we wanted to. How could I express my love and heartache enough with words?
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. When could I see him again? How long can I endure thinking about my only son’s suffering?
His health failed after three months of hard labor. If he were sent back to serve out the rest of his 15-year sentence in the labor camp, what would happen if his body simply gave out? This urgent fear hit me hard.
I have written letters, spoken to media and done whatever I could do to be heard. But it hasn’t been enough.
In August, the North Koreans rejected overtures by U.S. special envoy Robert King to visit Pyongyang and seek my son’s release.
We need the help of the American people to bring Kenneth home now: Sign the petition at change.org/FreeKenNow. Contact your government representatives. Share Kenneth’s story.
Please don’t forget my son Kenneth Bae.
Myunghee Bae lives in Lynnwood.