Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary who served a 735-day prison sentence after the North Korean government claimed he was part of a Christian plot to overthrow the regime, has revealed that his faith in God gave him the strength to survive during his captivity.
In his first live interview since his release in late 2014, Bae, 47, described the physical and verbal abuse he endured during his imprisonment on CNN's "New Day" on Monday.
"I worked from 8 a.m. to 6 pm. at night, working on the field, carrying rock, shoveling coal," Bae told CNN's Chris Cuomo.
He said one prosecutor repeatedly told him, " 'No one remembers you. You have been forgotten by people, your government. You're not going home anytime soon. You'll be here for 15 years. You'll be 60 before you go home.' "
While in captivity, Bae's health deteriorated rapidly, and he lost 60 pounds. However, after diplomatic efforts, the pastor was eventually released.
"I'm thankful every day and grateful for so many people that were involved in trying to get me home," he said. "It's unreal just to see that I'm actually sitting in the studio talking to you ... 735 days in North Korea was long enough. But I'm thankful."
He added, "Along the way, I found my way adjusting to life in the North Korean prison, just depending on God. And I knew the U.S. government would do everything possible that (would) bring me home."
Bae, who has three children, was born in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. with his parents and sister in 1985. He had been living in China as a Christian missionary for about seven years before his arrest in 2009. Within the last few years, he began leading small tour groups, mostly of American and Canadian citizens, into a "special economic zone" designed to encourage commerce in northeastern North Korea.
He was leading a tour when he was arrested in November 2012, and was sentenced in April 2013 over "hostile acts." In November 2014, the U.S. State Department announced it had secured the release of Bae and another American held by North Korea, Matthew Todd Miller.
Speaking to CNN, Bae revealed that he will soon release a memoir published under HarperCollins' Christian-themed division, which will have "strong religious undertones."
"One thing I want people to take away from reading the book is God's faithfulness," Bae said. "After I was released, I was reminded that God has not forgotten the people of North Korea."
Christian groups say there are at least another 100,000 Christians trapped in the country's harsh prison camps, where prisoners face torture, forced labor and possible execution. In North Korea, practicing Christianity is illegal; in fact, for the 14th consecutive year, the country topped Open Door USA's World Watch List of countries where believers face the most persecution.
"Christianity is not only seen as 'opium for the people,' as is normal for all communist states, it is also seen as deeply Western and despicable," reads the report. "Christians try to hide their faith as far as possible to avoid arrest and being sent to labor camps with horrific conditions. Thus, one's Christian faith usually remains a well-protected secret, and most parents refrain from introducing their children to the Christian faith in order to make sure that nothing slips their tongue when they are asked."