American gets 15 years' hard labour in North Korea

May 2, 2013

Kenneth Bae may be 'bargaining chip' in regime's attempts to get concessions from the White House

NORTH KOREA'S decision to sentence a US citizen to 15 years' hard labour for "anti-government crimes" is another irritant to the inflamed relations between Pyongyang and Washington. 

Pae Jun-ho, who is known in the US as Kenneth Bae, was arrested last November in the northeastern port city of Rason – an area designated as a special economic zone. The 44-year-old had entered North Korean as a tourist.

North Korean media says the country's Supreme Court sentenced Bae to 15 years of "compulsory labour" on 30 April. The reports say he admitted charges of "crimes against North Korea", including attempting to overthrow the government of Kim Jong-un.

South Korean activists believe Bae may have been arrested for taking photographs of starving North Korean children, the BBC reports. He is a tour operator of Korean descent who runs a travel agency called Nation Tours in the US state of Washington, and is understood to be a devout Christian.

A spokesman for the US State Department said: "We call on the DPRK [North Korea] to release Kenneth Bae immediately on humanitarian grounds."

The BBC's Seoul correspondent Lucy Williamson says Bae's arrest appears at first glance to be a "direct challenge" to Washington. But she points out that he is not the first US citizen to be arrested or tried by the pariah regime in recent years. Pyongyang has also detained two American journalists, a businessman, an English teacher and an activist.

Williamson points out that all the Americans who were held or charged were released following negotiations, "some of which involved unofficial visits by high-profile Americans like former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton". Seen in that context, Bae's conviction could be an attempt "to draw US negotiators – even unofficial ones – to Pyongyang". She adds: "That would give North Korea a domestic propaganda victory, and it might also pave the way for broader, more official, talks on the wider issues."

The Guardian agrees that Pyongyang may "use Bae as a bargaining chip to secure diplomatic and financial concessions from the Obama administration".

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