Kenneth Bae speaks about his memoir in Seoul, South Korea, on June 1, 2016. File Photo by Yonhap News Agency/EPA
SEOUL, South Korea, Aug. 15 (UPI) -- An American missionary once sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea says it's highly possible that college student Otto Warmbier was tortured during his time as captive there.
Kenneth Bae, 49, who was released from North Korea detention in November 2014, said he was never physically tortured. But Warmbier, who died at age 23 shortly after being returned to the United States in a coma, may have had a different fate, Bae told UPI after delivering a lecture in Seoul on his experiences.
"It's possible Warmbier was tortured or physically abused," Bae said. "Case by case it is different."
North Korea has periodically detained prisoners, frequently on charges of plotting to overthrow the regime.
Around the time Bae, an evangelical Christian missionary, was arrested, North Korea was detaining foreigners on charges of subversion or espionage, including at least half a dozen Americans.
Most of the U.S. citizens, though homesick and exhausted, were returned without being subject to the kind of torture described graphically in defectors' testimonies or United Nations reports on the state's human rights conditions.
But staying in the good graces of North Korean guards takes some skill, Bae said.
"When I was there, they told me, 'If you don't cooperate, we'll just take you out and shoot. We'll treat you as a war criminal. We'll cut off your head and bury you where no one will find you,'" said Bae, who recounts his experiences in a book, Not Forgotten: The True Story of My Imprisonment in North Korea. "The verbal abuse was there."
In the bleakest moments, Bae said adhering to his faith helped him endure the travails of imprisonment: about 10 hours of hard labor six days a week, a mosquito-infested room, sleep deprivation and hospitalization.
Once Bae "gave up" his right to go home, he found he could make the most out of his difficult situation.
"I gave up my right to go home," Bae said, adding that in his prayers he asked to be "used [in North Korea], as a missionary."
As he changed his outlook, the former captive said he began to find the human side of North Koreans who kept watch over him.
"One by one, they started asking questions. They were very curious about the United States," Bae said. "Are people living in houses or streets? How much do you need to live there?"
Sharing information, Bae said, enabled him to develop a relationship with the guards and staff, a process that eased the pain of imprisonment. Friendships bloomed, and Bae said he plans to "go to Pyongyang to live there" after Korean unification.
"If we win the people's hearts in North Korea, there will be unification," he said. "If our focus is unification, then we must win their hearts."
What happened to Warmbier?
If Bae gave up his right to go home and took on a new perspective while in prison, Warmbier was less fortunate.
Dr. Daniel Kanter, director of the University of Cincinnati hospital, where Warmbier was hospitalized after his release in June, told NBC News the University of Virginia student's neurological condition can be "best described as a state of unresponsive wakefulness."
"If they are in that state from a lack of oxygen to the brain...and it has been more than three months...the chance of anyone having a meaningful recovery -- I don't know if any of us have ever seen it happen," Dr. Lori Shutter, professor of critical care medicine, neurology and neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told NBC after his death.
Asked whether the shock of captivity may have prompted Warmbier to attempt suicide, Bae said it is "possible."
But it is more likely, Bae said, that Warmbier experienced a "panic disorder" shortly after receiving a 15-year labor sentence, the same punishment Bae received after being arrested in 2012.
"They probably told him that you'll never get out, or your government does not care about you," Bae said. "So this is a lot to take on."
Citing a neurologist he spoke to regarding Warmbier's case, Bae said the student might have either suffered brain damage caused by physical abuse, or experienced a heart attack.
Warmbier's press conference
Bae said Warmbier could have been physically threatened prior to his highly publicized press conference in Pyongyang on March 16, 2016.
Referring to the carefully worded statement Warmbier gave in March, Bae said it was likely rehearsed "at least two or three days" in advance and the statement was "probably dictated by the North Korean government."
"And I think, what happened after, maybe a possible accident, something happened to him, once he was sent to the labor camp," Bae said.
Faith in North Korea
Bae credited his religion for surviving 735 days in the country that had branded him a dangerous criminal attempting to subvert the regime.
Speaking to an audience of activists and volunteers affiliated with nonprofit group Teach North Korean Refugees in Seoul on July 29, Bae said he had never studied the Bible so intensely in his life, an activity that, surprisingly, was allowed by the North Korean authorities.
"I prayed more there, I worshiped more there. If you ever have a hard time reading the Bible I suggest you go to North Korea," Bae said as the audience laughed.
On the two-year anniversary of his captivity, Nov. 3, 2014, Bae said he heard instructions "from God" to open his Bible to Zephaniah 9, Chapter 3, Verse 20.
The passage read, "At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home," Bae said.
The following Friday, U.S. intelligence director James Clapper went to Pyongyang to secure Bae's release, as well the release of Matthew Miller, another American.
Bae also said there are ironic "parallels" between the church and the regime, now condemned for its human rights violations and repressive rule.
"The North Korean government got a lot of ideas from the church, the Bible," Bae said, describing the political system that sets it apart from other post-communist countries like China and Russia. "The regime doesn't want people to know a lot of their ideas came from the Bible."