GENEVA, February 20, 2018 – Kenneth Bae, survivor of North Korean gulag and longest-held American prisoner in North Korea, today addressed the 10th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy — see quotes below.

For links to other speakers’ quotes, videos, photos, livestream, and more, click here.

On being arrested and tortured by North Korea:

  • “On November 3rd, 2012, I was arrested by North Korean authorities. I was charged with overthrowing  the government because I brought 300 Christian tourists from 17 different nations over 23 trips to North Korea to pray and worship.”
  • “They threatened to cut off my head and bury me where no one would find me. They said they would charge me as a war criminal and shoot me in the street if I do not cooperate.”
  • “My trial lasted one and half hours. I was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and sent to the labor camp for the foreigners. There were 30 or more guards and staff at the camp but I was the only prisoner.”
  • “I had to sleep with light on and got bitten by mosquitoes and other insects all night long. My back and hands hurt severely and I woke up every hour.”
  • “The most difficult part of my imprisonment was the waiting and not knowing when I would be able to go home… This psychological torture was as enduring hard physical labor.”

On lack of freedom in North Korea:

  • “On paper, the North Korean constitution allows freedom of religion but in reality, they only allow worshiping of their leader Kim Il sung.”
  • “North Korea is the society of no rights. No right to worship, no right to speak, no right for free vote, no right to travel, no right to make basic choices.  Every human being deserves to live like a human being.”


Full prepared remarks:

My name is Kenneth Bae. I am a pastor and a missionary. I was born in South Korea. When I was 16, I immigrated to the United States with my family and became a citizen.   

On November 3rd, 2012, I was arrested by North Korean authorities. I was charged with overthrowing  the government because I brought 300 Christian tourists from 17 different nations over 23 trips to North Korea to pray and worship. One of them wanted to start an orphanage for homeless children and so I sent her back into the country. 

A North Korean security investigator told me that if one person becomes a Christian and opens an orphanage in North Korea, 10 children would become Christians then 100, then 10,000. On paper, the North Korean constitution allows freedom of religion but in reality, they only allow worshipping of their leader Kim Il sung.  The North Korean regime views prayer and worship as a threat.  

They accused me of being the worst American criminal ever caught since the Korean War. 

During the investigation, I was subjected to physical and psychological abuse. They threatened to cut off my head and bury me where no one would find me. They said they would charge me as a war criminal and shoot me in the street if I do not cooperate. So I had no choice but follow along and sign the forced confession that I had attempted to overthrow the government of North Korea by praying and worship.  

My trial lasted one and half hours. I was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and sent to the labor camp for the foreigners. There were 30 or more guards and staff at the camp but I was the only prisoner. I became a first American prisoner who was sent to the labor camp in North Korea since the Korean War.   

I was forced to work from 8 am until 6 pm six days a week.  It was intense physical labor – farming, carrying rocks, digging, shoveling coal. I was in the field all day with temperatures high as 38 degree Celsius in summer or minus 17 degree in winter.  At the end of my day of back-breaking labor, I was forced to sit and watch their propaganda TV for “re-education.” I had to sleep with light on and got bitten by mosquitoes and other insects all night long. My back and hands hurt severely and I woke up every hour.  I suffered terribly. 

My meals consisted of rice and soup and few vegetables 3 times a day. For the first few months I also received some bread and snack. I lost 27kg in three months in labor camp and was sent to the hospital.  

I was in and out of the hospital three times for malnutrition. Perhaps I was fortunate to be treated at the hospital for foreigners in Pyongyang, but then I was told I would have to pay 600 euro per night before I go home. Well, my first bill for 4 months stay at the hospital came out 100,000 euro! In the end I did not have to pay. 

The most difficult part of my imprisonment was the waiting and not knowing when I would be able to go home.  Every single week for one year, one prosecutor told me that no one remembers me, that my government had abandoned me, that I will have to be here for 15 years. This psychological torture was as enduring hard physical labor.   

But the 450 letters I received from around the world encouraged me that I was not forgotten. That they are remembering me, standing with me and praying for me. More than 177,000 people signed the petition to President Obama for my release. Many reached out to their representatives. U.S. diplomats and officials worked tirelessly for my release.   

My ordeal lasted 735 days. I became a longest held American prisoner since the Korean War. I was finally released after President Obama sent a special envoy to North Korea.  

North Korea is the society of no rights. No right to worship, no right to speak, no right for free vote, no right to travel, no right to make basic choices.  Every human being deserves to live like a human being. Even today hundred of thousands people are suffering in labor camps, and political prisons without hope. My freedom was taken away for two years, but 25 millions have been living without freedom for the last 70 years.   

Becoming a Christian in North Korea is a sure guarantee for torture, imprisonment and executions.  Knowing that the global community stands with 25 million North Koreans would give them some hope. The people of North Korea need to know that we are fighting for them.  We must do everything possible to get this information into the country and we must show genuine concern for the North Koreans and refugees who have fled the country.   

I am standing here because you cared for me and stood with me. I am fortunate that I came home alive. Sadly, Otto came home in a coma and passed away 6 days later.  No one deserves this type of violence and torture.  

Now I started an NGO to help North Korean refugees and the people in North Korea – to remember and stand with them to be a voice for the voiceless. I moved to Seoul, South Korea in 2016. I refuse to be silenced and will continue my work until the two Koreas are united again and the North Korean people are free.  

I started a prayer petition campaign for North Korea and I am asking the global community to remember, stand with, and pray for them. pray4nk.org is the website to sign the petition to God.  Because I was rescued, I am helping others to escape and find safe haven. I also help them to integrate once they arrive in South Korea by proving counseling, English tutoring, and job placement.  Also We are helping with North Korean orphans.  

We must continue to pressure North Korea about human rights. The North Korean government monitors and reports back about human right issues and pressure raised by the global community and eventually they have no choice but to improve human rights.   

Every voice matters, media attention, political community’s concern that leads to a resolution. This will bring change to the lives of North Koreans. So remember and stand with them.  You can make a difference.  

 South Korea led free democratic Korean Unification is the answer.  This would end the human rights violations. Not only would it bring peace to the Korean Peninsula, but it would ensure security for the global community.  

Better Life, Better together.  Korean Unification