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US Calls on Pyongyang to Release Korean-American Tour Guide

  • VOA News

A South Korean man watches a television news program showing Korean American Kenneth Bae in Seoul, South Korea, May 2, 2013

A South Korean man watches a television news program showing Korean American Kenneth Bae in Seoul, South Korea, May 2, 2013

The United States is calling on North Korea to release a Korean-American sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for what Pyongyang says were "hostile acts" against the state.

U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell spoke to reporters Thursday about 44-year-old Kenneth Bae, a tour guide operator arrested this past November.

"What we're calling on for and what we're calling on the DPRK to do is to grant him amnesty and to allow for his immediate release," Ventrell said.

The official Korean Central News Agency says Bae, also known as Pae Jun-ho, was convicted by the country's supreme court Tuesday. Pyongyang previously said Bae confessed to committing crimes aimed at overthrowing the government.

Ventrell says the facts are not clear.

"There hasn't been transparency in the case. So while some of the facts are limited - to our knowledge we don't know all of the facts - we are concerned broadly speaking about the transparency and due process in North Korea and we think he should be released," Ventrell said.

Bae's college friends also have undertaken a campaign to secure his release.

Bobby Lee, now an advisor to Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, says that even in college, Bae was generous.

"He believed in being part of something and to make this world a better place," Lee said.

Lee also told VOA's Korean Service the charges against Bae just do not make sense.

"He's just an average guy. He has no stake in the matter. He was simply doing his job and somehow got caught in this whole debate," Lee said.

Lee and other friends have been sending letters to politicians, including former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, urging them to work for his release.

Bae was arrested in November in the northeastern port city of Rason, which lies in a special economic zone near the border with Russia and China.

In December, VOA's Korean Service was told by sources familiar with the matter that Bae was a tour guide operating his own company. They say he was detained for possessing photos of hungry North Korean children begging for food.

The Citizen's Coalition for the Human Rights for North Korean Refugees, a human rights group, also told VOA that Bae did charity work and provided assistance for North Korean orphans.

North Korea has detained several Americans in recent years, mostly journalists or Christians accused of proselytizing.

In 2009, two television journalists were detained and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor after crossing into the North from China. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton later traveled to North Korea to win their release.

In 2010, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter negotiated the release of U.S. national Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who was sentenced to eight years of hard labor after illegally crossing the border from China.

Another U.S. delegation in 2011 helped secure the release of Eddie Jun Yong-su, a businessman who was jailed after allegedly conducting missionary related activities.

The North Korean announcement comes at a time of increased tensions on the Korean peninsula. In recent weeks, Pyongyang has threatened attacks against South Korea and the U.S. in response to expanded sanctions against its latest nuclear test.