WASHINGTON — The United States called on Thursday for North Korea to grant amnesty and immediately release a Korean-American sentenced to 15 years' hard labor for what it said were “hostile acts” against the state.
Kenneth Bae, 44, a Washington state man described by friends as a devout Christian, is 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 President Clinton.
Analysts said Bae's sentencing could be an effort by Pyongyang to win diplomatic concessions in the ongoing standoff over its nuclear program. But there was no immediate sign a high-profile envoy was about to make a clemency mission to the isolated nation, which has taken an increasingly bellicose stance under Kim Jong Un.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said, “There's no greater priority for us than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad, and we urge (North Korean) authorities to grant Mr. Bae amnesty and immediate release.”
Pyongyang has found itself under increasing pressure from the West, which deplored its recent nuclear test and rocket launch. The United Nations expanded sanctions against the communist state in March.
Patrick Cronin, a senior analyst with the Center for a New American Security, called Bae's conviction “a hasty gambit to force a direct dialogue with the United States.”
Meanwhile, North Korea “will move closer” to its announced goal of being able to strike the United States with a nuclear-armed missile if it keeps investing in tests of nuclear and missile technology, the Pentagon said Thursday in a report to Congress.
The unclassified version of the report, which was required by a 2012 law, offered no estimate of when North Korea might achieve that capability.