EUGENE, Ore. — A U.S. tour operator who has been detained in North Korea since November attended the University of Oregon.
Kenneth Bae was at the university between 1988 and 1990, The Register-Guard newspaper reported Tuesday. School spokeswoman Julie Brown said Bae majored in psychology but left before getting a degree.
Bae is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in South Korea but most recently lived in the Seattle suburb of Lynnwood. He operated a travel company that took tourists and prospective investors to North Korea.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Saturday that Bae was being tried in the country’s Supreme Court on charges that he plotted to overthrow the North Korean government. The U.S. on Monday called on North Korea to release Bae on humanitarian grounds.
UO alum Bobby Lee, 44, a policy adviser for Gov. John Kitzhaber, told the newspaper he and Bae were “practically roommates” during their years at UO. The pair often traveled to the Oregon Coast and Lee said Bae loved to cook.
Lee said he learned about Bae’s detainment after running in the Eugene Marathon on Sunday and “couldn’t believe it.”
The two met as freshmen while volunteering for a tutoring program for disadvantaged students.
“He was excited,” Lee said. “He wanted to make friends. He was a very social guy.”
Another college friend, Dennis Kwon, 44, also met Bae as a freshman. He did so through the Korean Student Association.
“He was very compassionate about helping others,” Kwon said. “I remember he’d help Korean exchange students adjust to campus life.”
Kwon was the best man at his Bae’s wedding in 1990. Bae left Eugene before graduation to work in California to support his wife, Kwon said.
Although neither kept in touch with Bae after college, Lee and Kwon plan to spread the word about his detainment. Lee said he has contacted U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who tried to see Bae during a private trip to North Korea in January but was rebuffed.
“He’s not well-known,” Lee said. “He deserves the same level of attention that previous North Korean detainees received. We want people to care.”