How Rev. Jesse Jackson Could Help Free An American Prisoner In North Korea

CREDIT: AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon

The Rev. Jesse Jackson has a well-earned reputation for parachuting into some of the thorniest international situations and winning the release of Americans held captive. And now he may be looking to repeat the process, this time trying to win the release of an American held in North Korea and with the support of the U.S. government.

The American in question in this current case is Kenneth Bae, a tour guide who has been imprisoned on charges of attempting to overthrow the North Korean government. While Bae may have been proselytizing Christianity during his travels, the United States insists that Bae be released, particularly due to reports of his failing health. Pyongyang has to date refused, twice now revoking offers for the U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues Robert King travel to North Korea to meet with Bae.

North Korea’s most recent denial on Monday spurred Bae’s family to go public with their recent conversations with Jackson on the possibility of his making the trip to try to secure their relative’s release. “We have been speaking with Rev. Jackson for the last few weeks,” Terri Chung, Bae’s sister, said in a statement. “My mother and I had the opportunity to meet with Rev. Jackson and have been touched by his warmth, generosity of spirit and his investment in bringing Kenneth home,” she continued. “Regardless of the outcome, we are deeply grateful to Rev. Jackson for his proactive pursuits of Kenneth’s freedom.”

The State Department on Monday, when asked about the chance of Jackson traveling to North Korea, responded positively towards the idea. “I think people are aware that Reverend Jackson – Jesse Jackson – had offered to travel to Pyongyang on a humanitarian mission focused on Bae’s release,” Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf said during State’s daily press briefing. “We support the efforts, of course, of the family, but also of Reverend Jackson to bring Kenneth Bae home. So again, we want him to come home.”

“The North Koreans should release him. And we stand ready to send our folks in, certainly – our folks, Ambassador King – if they reissue an offer,” she said. Harf also told reporters that she was unsure of whether the State Department had been in contact with Jackson directly.

Jackson hasn’t always had such public support for his missions undertaken as a private citizen. In 1983, at a time when the U.S. had Marines stationed in neighboring Lebanon, Jackson traveled to Syria to gain the release of captured American pilot Navy Lt. Robert Goodman. The very next year, he went to Cuba to convince the Castro regime to release 7 Cuban political prisoners and 16 American citizens, one of whom had been imprisoned since the Bay of Pigs invasion. In both of those instances, Jackson succeeded, returning to the U.S. with his newly freed companions.

In neither of those instances did the Reagan administration express support for Jackson’s private diplomacy before the fact, though the White House did welcome the reverend and Goodman following their return from Syria. Those victories didn’t endear the Reagan government to his efforts, though. Then-vice president George H.W. Bush also rebuffed Jackson attempting to negotiate with Iran’s foreign minister to gain the release of nine Americans being held in Lebanon.

Most recently, during the American bombing campaign of Kosovo in 1999, Jackson somehow managed to persuade Slobodan Milosovic’s government to release three American prisoners of war. The process in that case was lengthy, as Jodi Kantor explained at the time in Slate, one that will difficult to repeat in the case of North Korea:

To reach the captured soldiers in Serbia, Jackson first conferred with Yugoslavia’s ambassador to the UN in early April and requested a visa to Belgrade. Rep. Rod Blagojevich [later governor of Illinois], a Serbian-American Democrat who serves alongside Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in Congress, obtained promises of visits with the prisoners and safe passage from the Serb government. Various Serbian-American organizations then helped with travel arrangements and recruited a Milosevic aide to arrange the actual meeting

Prior to the State Department’s endorsement on Monday, Jackson had mostly seen his recent offers to undertake private missions ignored or rebuffed, as in the cases of Iraq in 2007 to release contractors taken hostage and Iran in 2009 to win the freedom of a journalist convicted of spying. Instead, the last major instances of private diplomacy were undertaken by former President Clinton and current White House advisor John Podesta. The two traveled to Pyongyang in 2009, securing the pardon and release of journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling.

Jackson may have already been in the process of trying to make inroads in hopes of bringing Bae back to the U.S. The reverend expressed support for former NBA star Dennis Rodman’s recent trips to North Korea, which the ex-Chicago Bull player has dubbed “basketball diplomacy.” During Rodman’s most recent trip last month, Jackson tweet out “ping pong diplomacy worked in China, and Basketball seems to work in North Korea.” Rodman was roundly criticized for not using his audience with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to advocate for Bae’s release. Rodman in turn dismissed these calls as “politics,” which he actively avoided.