Former UO student Kenneth Bae was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor by the North Korean Supreme Court on April 30. Since his sentencing, Bae’s hope for release has become an ever-increasing struggle, but his support from his friends and family remains strong.
One of the people working relentlessly to bring Bae back to the United States is Bobby Lee. Lee was a close friend of Bae’s when they both attended the UO, and is currently a policy adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber.
“Ken and I pretty much hung out everyday,” Lee said. “He loved being a Duck.”
Along with Bae’s family, Lee makes as much contact as he can with Bae, and the best way they’re able to keep in touch is by sending letters, no matter how sporadic they may be.
“He’s sent letters to me and his family. I’m telling him to hang in there,” Lee said. “It’s not very frequent, but whenever we can we try to forward letters to him. I make sure to send him some photos of us so that he knows we’re together to help him.” Photos such as the one displayed above, with Lee, Bae’s mother and sister and Bae’s father who turned 70 on July 4. With tears in his eyes, Bae was hoping to be back in the states to celebrate his father’s 70th birthday.
Just like Bae says in his interview conducted by Choson Sinbo – a pro-North Korean organization based in Japan – Bae maintains in his letters that his health is dangerously deteriorating.
“His health is deteriorating consistently. He has an enlarged heart and diabetes, eye troubles and back issues, and they’re being exasperated from working hard labor all day,” Lee said. “On top of all of this, the mental stress that’s coming from the hard labor is undeniable. The isolation takes a toll.”
Bae has lost 50 pounds since he’s been sentenced.
In one of the letters Bae sent to Lee, he writes: “I am urging you to help get the U.S. Government to send a high ranking official to negotiate my release.”
Sweden is serving on behalf of the U.S. to try and negotiate bringing Bae back, and U.S. Ambassador Robert King, the president’s special envoy for North Korean human rights issues was sent to Pyongyang on Aug. 30 to try and free Bae, but both so far haven’t been able to do so.
Via Twitter, former NBA player Dennis Rodman said that he could bring back Bae from North Korea, but once he went to North Korea to visit Kim Jong-un, Rodman says he didn’t even bring up Bae.
“Guess what? That’s not my job to ask about Bae,” Rodman said to the press after he arrived back from visiting North Korea earlier in September.
“He’s using Bae’s misfortune to elevate his own Hollywood brand. He created a stage for himself, and he gave us all false hope,” Lee said. “We all got duped, and he’s walking away with millions of dollars and laughing. But I don’t think this is funny.”
Lee says that he has tried to contact Rodman multiple times by calling, emailing, writing letters and sending pictures of Bae and his family, but Rodman hasn’t responded.
“He created this expectation and he gave us all false hope,” Lee said. “He folded like nothing more but a cheap tent.”
Lee’s frustration towards Rodman is understandable, especially since Bae’s health is only getting worse each passing day. But even with all the struggles they’ve faced within the last five months and the ticking clock on Bae’s health, Lee and Bae’s family aren’t giving up hope.
“It’s important that we keep spreading the word about Ken, and raising awareness about his situation,” Lee said. “We’re doing everything we can to help him out, and we’re not stopping.”