U.S. citizen sentenced to 15 years hard labor in North Korea

Korean-American Kenneth Bae has been convicted of unspecified crimes against the regime

Published May 2, 2013 3:47PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

North Korea has sentenced American citizen Kenneth Bae to 15 years' forced labor for unspecified crimes against the regime.

Bae, also known as Pae Jun Ho, is accused of attempting to "topple" North Korea, according to state-run media. He has supposedly admitted the charges.

"The Supreme Court sentenced him to 15 years of compulsory labour for this crime," North Korea's official news agency announced Thursday.

Bae, 44, was detained in the northeast city of Rason on Nov. 3 after entering North Korea on a tourist visa.

According to reports, he is a Korean-American who runs a travel company and was in the country to lead a tour group. A devout Christian, he had made several previous trips to North Korea to do humanitarian work, friends told the Associated Press.

Bae may have been arrested for taking photos of emaciated North Korean children in an effort to attract international attention to their plight, South Korea-based activist Doo Hee Yoon told Agence France-Presse.

That Pyongyang chose now to sentence him could be significant. The penalty was announced two weeks after North Korea calmed its war bluster, and US Secretary of State John Kerry tried to pull the country into talks to give up its nuclear program.

Many analysts in Seoul think that, like in the 2009 arrest of Euna Lee and Laura Ling for illegally crossing the border, Kenneth Bae will be used as a bargaining chip for future negotiations. Yonhap is reporting that former US president Jimmy Carter may be seeking a trip to North Korea, although the plan remains unconfirmed.

When Lee and Ling were put on trial and sentenced to 12 years' hard labor, Bill Clinton made a visit and met with Kim Jong Il. North Korean state mouthpieces portrayed the rendezvous as a diplomatic victory with a former American president. So far, many experts are suggesting that a similar situation could develop in the coming weeks.

The US has not yet commented on Bae's sentencing.

On Monday, shortly after North Korea announced it had completed its "preliminary inquiry" into his alleged crimes, the State Department urged authorities to free Bae immediately "on humanitarian grounds."

By Jessica Phelan

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Foreign Policy Globalpost John Kerry North Korea Prison Pyongyang