North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency announced on Wednesday that its mysterious American captive, Kenneth Bae, has begun his 15-year sentence at a "special prison," which has Korea watchers scratching their heads. Indeed, for all we've heard about the country's gulags, not one expert seems to know much of anything about these "special" jails — but if Pyongyang is trying to parlay Bae's imprisonment into political gain after all, it's a pretty spectacular move. Here's the pithy report on Bae's arrival behind bars from KCNA:
That's the whole thing. Earlier reports had suggested that Bae, a Christian American citizen who was using his China-based tour agency as a front for missionary work in North Korea, was headed for one the country's infamous labor camps. There was no mention of any "special prison" at the time. But then last we found out Bae was suspected in a conspiracy known as "Operation Jericho," and it appears the game has changed. Or at least the appearance of the game has changed. He arrived at "special prison" — whatever that is — on Tuesday.
The North Korean propaganda machine at KCNA has been clear about this already: "Some media of the U.S. said that the DPRK tried to use Pae's case as a political bargaining chip," the "news" agency reported on May 6. "This is a ridiculous and wrong guess." But North Korea loves to keep the world guessing, especially when it's got an American on its hands — an American who very easily could be used as a bargaining chip, even if the U.S. doesn't want to go down that swoop-in-and-save route this time. "Two South Korean experts on North Korean law said they didn’t know what a 'special prison' was," the AP reports from its new Pyongyang bureau, adding that Bae was allowed to telephone his family earlier this week:
A North Korean academic, using information provided by the government, told The Associated Press earlier this week that Bae had told his family in a phone call that he couldn’t appeal his April 30 sentence and that they should urge Washington to push for his amnesty.
If North Korea is true to its word about not wanting to bargain, then why allow Bae a phone call? Why not just send him to another one of those labor camps without any contact at all? North Korea makes its own rules, doesn't it?
Which brings us to the idea of a "special prison." It could mean that Bae is now an inmate at an even more brutal gulag. It could mean that he is merely in a prison specifically for foreign prisoners rising up against the regime. It could also mean that Bae is at a less severe establishment. Or it could mean that North Korea is bluffing about Bae's status and everything will be fine.
Whatever the case, North Korea, by way of its propaganda arm, very much wants us to know that this guy is being imprisoned somewhere of note. And this is in no way accidental. "Analysts and several defectors who have worked in the North Korean media say any message published by the agency is part of an elaborately coordinated effort that requires much the same work as a screenplay," The Washington Post's Chico Harlan reported last month, referring to the escalating tensions in the region and several threats of war published by KCNA. "[T]hose familiar with the North’s media say the messages come from a slow-grinding process involving dozens of meetings and thousands of people — strategists, storytellers, ideological advisers and journalists," Harlan added.
So Bae's "special prison" message could just be the latest in a series of veiled threats meant to confuse the world and boost North Korean pride as part of a carefully orchestrated plan. For all we know, Bae could just be sitting in a tiny room in Kim Jong-un's secret lair. (That's unlikely.) But the behind-the-scenes grasping for answers, from such a sparse piece of propaganda, makes you want to conjure every scenario. And that might be exactly what North Korea wants you to do.