SEOUL, South Korea — A
Korean American detained for six months in North Korea has been
sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for “hostile acts” against the
state, the North’s media said Thursday — a move that could trigger a
visit by a high-profile American if history is any guide.
Kenneth Bae, 44, a Washington state man described by friends as
a devout Christian and a tour operator, is at least the sixth American
detained in North Korea since 2009. The others eventually were deported
or released without serving out their terms, some after trips to
Pyongyang by prominent Americans, including former U.S. presidents Bill
Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
With already abysmal U.S.-North Korean ties worsening since a
long-range rocket-launch more than a year ago, Pyongyang is fishing for
another such meeting, said Ahn Chan-il, head of the World Institute for
North Korea Studies think tank in South Korea.
“North Korea is
using Bae as bait to make such a visit happen. An American bigwig
visiting Pyongyang would also burnish Kim Jong Un’s leadership profile,”
Ahn said. Kim took power after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in
The authoritarian country has faced increasing
criticism over its nuclear weapons ambitions. Six-nation disarmament
talks involving the Koreas, the United States, Japan, China and Russia
fell apart in 2009. Several rounds of U.N. sanctions have not encouraged
the North to give up its small cache of nuclear devices, which
Pyongyang says it must not only keep but expand to protect itself from a
Pyongyang’s tone has softened somewhat
recently, following weeks of violent rhetoric, including threats of
nuclear war and missile strikes. There have been tentative signs of
interest in diplomacy, and a major source of North Korean outrage —
annual U.S.-South Korean military drills — ended Tuesday.
Washington, the U.S. State Department said it was working with the
Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang to confirm the report of Bae’s sentencing.
The United States lacks formal diplomatic ties with North Korea and
relies on Sweden for diplomatic matters involving U.S. citizens there.
The Swedish ambassador in Pyongyang, Karl-Olof Andersson, referred
queries to the State Department.
Patrick Cronin, a senior analyst
with the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, called
Bae’s conviction “a hasty gambit to force a direct dialogue with the
“While Washington will do everything possible to
spare an innocent American from years of hard labor, U.S. officials are
aware that in all likelihood the North Korean regime wants a meeting to
demonstrate that the United States in effect confers legitimacy on the
North’s nuclear-weapon-state status,” Cronin said in an email.
House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling aboard Air Force
One en route to Mexico that if North Korea is interested in talks, they
should live up to their obligations under the six-party talks.
“Thus far, as you know, they have flouted their obligations, engaged in
provocative actions and rhetoric that brings them no closer to a
situation where they can improve the lot of the North Korean people or
re-enter the community of nations,” Carney said.
Bae’s trial on
charges of “committing hostile acts” against North Korea took place in
the Supreme Court on Tuesday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency
said. The announcement came just days after KCNA said Saturday that
authorities would soon indict and try him. KCNA has referred to Bae as
Pae Jun Ho, the North Korean spelling for his Korean name.
Bae, from Lynnwood, Washington, was arrested in early November
in Rason, a special economic zone in North Korea’s far northeastern
region bordering China and Russia, state media said. The exact nature of
Bae’s alleged crimes has not been revealed.
“Kenneth Bae had no access to a lawyer. It is not even known
what he was charged with,” the human rights group Amnesty International
said in a statement. “Kenneth Bae should be released, unless he is
charged with an internationally recognizable criminal offense and
retried by a competent, independent and impartial court.”
and colleagues say Bae was based in the Chinese border city of Dalian
and traveled frequently to North Korea to feed orphans. Bae’s mother in
the United States did not answer calls seeking comment Thursday.
are parallels to a case in 2009. After Pyongyang’s launch of a
long-range rocket and its second underground nuclear test that year, two
American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were sentenced to 12
years of hard labor after sneaking across the border from China.
later were pardoned on humanitarian grounds and released to Clinton,
who met with then-leader Kim Jong Il. U.S.-North Korea talks came later
In 2011, Carter visited North Korea to win the release
of imprisoned American Aijalon Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight
years of hard labor for crossing illegally into the North from China.
American Eddie Jun was released in 2011 after Robert King, the U.S.
envoy on North Korean human rights, traveled to Pyongyang. Jun had been
detained for half a year over an unspecified crime.
Jun and Gomes
are also devout Christians. While North Korea’s constitution guarantees
freedom of religion, in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated
by the government.
U.N. and U.S. officials accuse North Korea of
treating opponents brutally. Foreign nationals have told varying stories
about their detentions in North Korea.
The two journalists sentenced to hard labor in 2009 stayed in a guest house instead of a labor camp due to medical concerns.
Lameda, a member of Venezuela’s Communist Party and a poet invited to
the North in 1966 to work as a Spanish translator, said that he was
detained in a damp, filthy cell without trial the following year after
facing espionage allegations that he denied. He later spent six years in
prison after a one-day trial, he said.