Who is Kenneth Bae?

Story highlights

  • Bae was arrested in North Korea in 2012
  • He was convicted by North Korea of "hostile acts'' in 2013, sentenced to 15 years' hard labor
  • He was released in November 2014

(CNN)Who is Kenneth Bae? And why was he held by North Korea?

Born in South Korea, Bae immigrated at age 16 to the United States with his parents, his mother told CNN.
    He lived in Lynwood, Washington, before moving to China in 2005. A year later, he established "Nations Tour," a China-based tour company that specialized in tours of North Korea, according to his family and freekennow.com, a website established by friends to promote his release.
    Bae is married and the father of three children. His sister Terri Chung describes him as a devout Christian.
    "Several years ago, Kenneth saw an opportunity that combined his entrepreneurial spirit with his personal convictions as a Christian," the website said. "He believed in showing compassion to the North Korean people by contributing to their economy in the form of tourism."
    Bae had guided at least 15 tour groups, mostly made up of Americans and Canadians, into North Korea at the time of his arrest, his family has said.

    What happened?

    This much everybody appears to agree on: Bae was on the first day of a five-day tour when he was arrested November 3, 2012, in Rason, an area along the northeastern coast of North Korea that has been established by Pyongyang as a special economic zone to promote trade and investment.
    Word of Bae's arrest first surfaced in South Korea media reports days after he was detained, with the United States later confirming it.
    Nearly two weeks after detaining Bae, North Korea's official news agency confirmed his arrest, saying only he was picked up for a crime against the state.
    According to the state-run Korean Central News Agency, KCNA, there was evidence uncovered that proved he had committed a crime against the country. Among the allegations: Bae was setting up bases in China to topple the North Korean government; he was encouraging North Korean citizens to bring down the government; and he was conducting a "malignant smear campaign."
    In May 2013, the government also accused Bae of planning a "Jericho operation" to bring down the government through religious activities.
    North Korea said he confessed.

    What did he do?

    There was speculation the evidence North Korea cites may in fact have been something Bae was carrying with him, perhaps a Bible or some other religious literature.
    In a pre-taped statement released in March to promote his memoir, Bae said he "made a terrible mistake by carrying a portable hard drive containing hostile, anti-North Korean material by accident."
    His mother, Myunghee Bae, who visited her son in North Korea, told CNN that her son was a devout Christian who had not understood the North Korean system. North Korea is officially an atheist state.
    While in North Korea, former NBA player Dennis Rodman got in a heated exchange in an interview with CNN's Chris Cuomo about the subject of Bae's guilt.
    Cuomo asked whether the former NBA player was planning to inquire about Bae during his visit. In response, Rodman, who was in North Korea with a team of fellow former NBA players, suggested the Korean-American had done something wrong, but did not specify what.
    "Do you understand what he did in this country?" Rodman asked Cuomo. "No, no, no, you tell me, you tell me. Why is he held captive here in this country, why?"

    Bae's health

    Bae's health was a subject of serious concern during his time in captivity.
    North Korea is considered to have one of the most repressive penal systems in the world. Human rights groups estimate that as many as 200,000 people are being held in a network of prison camps that the regime is believed to use to crush political dissent.
    In a prison interview with Choson Sinbo, a pro-North Korean group based in Tokyo, Bae spoke of health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure, fatty liver and a back problem. He looked noticeably thinner and wore a blue prison garment streaked with sweat and dirt.
    "Although my health is not good, I am being patient and coping well," he said at the time.
    Bae was moved to a hospital for serious health problems, his sister told CNN.
    In previous interviews, Chung has said that her brother suffers from health problems including severe back and leg pain, kidney stones, dizziness, blurred vision and loss of vision. He was already dealing with diabetes.
    His family said he has lost more than 50 pounds.

    Previous efforts to free him

    Bae's conviction followed North Korea's testing of a long-range rocket and an underground nuclear test, moves that resulted in tougher U.N. sanctions.
    U.S. officials repeatedly called on North Korea to release Bae. In August 2013, the two countries appeared close, but North Korea rescinded an invitation to a U.S. envoy. Ambassador Robert King, President Barack Obama's special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, had been expected to fly to Pyongyang to try to win Bae's freedom.
    In previous instances, North Korea has released Americans in its custody after a visit by some U.S. dignitary -- in recent cases, former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
    Efforts by Bill Richardson, the former ambassador to the United Nations, were unsuccessful in winning Bae's release during a visit to North Korea.
    Bae was released in November 2014 after a visit from the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper.