American Sent to "Special" North Korean Prison

The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
May 15 2013 1:06 PM

Why We Can't Seem To Talk About North Korea Without Talking About Dennis Rodman

US basketball star Dennis Rodman walks near to the Vatican as he shows support for a black papal candidate on March 13, 2013 in Vatican City

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Kenneth Bae, the American citizen who has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea for what Pyongyang says was his attempts to topple Kim Jong-un's regime, will serve his time in a "special prison," state media reported today. Back at home, that news was greeted with two questions, one obvious and explicit, and one less so.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

The first: What the heck is a "special prison"? Turns out, no one outside of North Korea seems to know. The short dispatch from North Korea's KNCA suggested it wasn't your run-of-the-mill gulag but didn't elaborate, and those who spend their days keeping tabs on the reclusive nation were unable to fill in the blanks. As the Associated Press put it simply this morning toward the top of their story: "Two South Korean experts on North Korean law said they didn’t know what a 'special prison' was." They don't appear to be alone.


The second was less clear but boils down to some form of: Why won't Kim Jong-un do Dennis Rodman the favor he asked for and release Bae? The basis for that implicit question was a tweet the former NBA great sent out last week that declared: "I'm calling on the Supreme Leader of North Korea or as I call him 'Kim', to do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose." Rodman's tweet—which didn't make clear whether he had even directly reached out to his new BFF—had already garned its own headlines, and then managed to find its way into today's stories about Bae and his prison living arrangements for good measure. I'll do my best to explain why that happened momentarily, but first a sampling from those outlets that are running their own original stories on today's news:


Even a plea last week for Bae's release from the basketball star Dennis Rodman, who met with Kim Jong Un during a bizarre visit to North Korea in February, has failed to have any apparent effect.
Former NBA star Dennis Rodman has attempted to use his friendship with Kim Jong Un on Bae’s behalf. On his Twitter account, Rodman asked the leader to "do me a solid" and release Bae. Rodman visited North Korea in February and apparently hit it off with Kim, a die-hard basketball fan. Pyongyang hasn’t responded. Rodman said after his trip to North Korea that he planned to return in August to vacation with Kim.
North Korea’s high court claimed Mr. Bae admitted his crimes — that he smuggled anti-government documents into the hands of radicals while in the country to feed orphans and perform other acts of charity, various media reported. Washington has called for his release, and NBA legend Dennis Rodman, a self-professed friend of dictator Kim Jong-un, has vowed to travel to the country and secure his freedom.
Earlier this week, former NBA star Dennis Rodman attempted to use his friendship with Kim on Bae's behalf, asking the leader to 'do me a solid' and release the American. Rodman visited North Korea in February and apparently hit it off with Kim, a die-hard basketball fan. Pyongyang hasn't responded to Rodman's appeal on Twitter. Rodman said after his trip to North Korea that he planned to return in August to vacation with Kim.

In Rodman's defense—and I didn't imagine I'd ever be typing those words, particularly when talking about international affairs—his tweet was in direct response to a Seattle Times op-ed urging the "NBA has-been to practice some real basketball diplomacy and call up his so-called friend for a favor." Still, it's hard to imagine that Rodman holds that much sway over Kim Jong-un, who after all has already secured one (embarassingly) high-profile visit from the former Chicago Bull and appears likely to get a second soon enough.

So why does the media keep finding ways to mention Rodman? In this particular case, I'd guess the driving force is the simple fact that so much of what happens inside the Hermit kingdom is unknown. Rodman at least provides something concrete to write about—diplomatic speculation aside, his visit did happen—in a story about something (the "special prision") that we can't even define.

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