EUGENE, Ore. - An American accused by North Korea of plotting to overthrow the government attended the University of Oregon in the late 1980s.
Kenneth Bae operates a tour company that specializes in visits to North Korea, according to his college classmate, Bobby Lee. Lee now works as an advisor to Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon.
"He had a business located in China helping people travel, so essentially he is a tour guide," Lee told KVAL News. "He had a license to come in and out of North Korea."
Lee said Bae was also a humanitarian with an interest in helping homeless youth in North Korea.
"Part of his service wasn't just a tour guide, but also to serve the needy population, the homeless youth population," Lee said. "In that process, some people are suggesting he had intelligence, photos or insight into that part of the world, and that information can be used against North Korea is what some people are suspecting."
The North Koreans likely will use Bae as a bargaining chip, according to Tuong Vu, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon.
"In the last six months, the relationship has been even more tense because of our effort to punish them for their ambitions nuclear program," Vu said. "They've arrested foreigners, usually Western citizens. They often release them after a while in return for concessions - some visits by high ranking officials of the countries.
"Even if they have no intention to punish Kenneth, they're using him to boost their legitimacy on the global stage," he said.
Lee wants to keep his old friend's plight in the public eye in hopes popular opinion can push for a resolution to the situation.
"Ken is just an average guy who was out there doing his job and helping those who are in need," he said, "and he is essentially caught between these diplomatic issues between the United States and North Korea."