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May 02, 2013

N. Korea Sentences American to 15 Years Hard Labor

by Steve Herman

North Korea says an American citizen arrested last year has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after being convicted of hostile acts against the reclusive state.

In a terse three-sentence dispatch, the official Korean Central News Agency said Thursday that Pae Jun-ho, known as Kenneth Bae in the United States, was convicted by the country's supreme court, Tuesday.

According to KCNA, Bae was arrested November 3, 2012 while “committing hostile acts” after entering Rason City as a tourist.

Rason is a special economic zone bordering China and Russia.

North Korean officials have not specified Bae's alleged crime. But in previous dispatches they accused him of attempting to overthrow the government.

Kim Yoon-tae, the secretary general of the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, said Pyongyang may be using the case as leverage to pressure or negotiate with the United States.

Kim said it appears North Korea wants to induce a visit by a high-ranking American, such as former presidents Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter, or the State Department's special envoy for North Korean human rights, Robert King.

South Korean media report that Carter is making preparations to go to North Korea. In 2010, he secured the release of another American there accused of similar crimes.

Kim said such a visit might help shift Pyongyang from a mode of confrontation to dialogue.

He said, although North Korea would use such a visit to request the resumption of food aid or formal talks, it likely can be expected to also use the visit for domestic propaganda purposes.

Related - Experts: Sentence of American a Bargaining Chip for N. Korea

Kim says previous visits by former American presidents portrayed them as acquiescing to the North Korean leadership. He said that allows Pyongyang to claim to its own people that it is on an equal footing with the strongest country in the world.

​​A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Seoul says the American government is seeking to confirm the report of Bae's sentencing, via the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang.  The United States and North Korea have no diplomatic relations.

Asked about the case Tuesday, a State Department spokesman called the welfare of U.S. citizens "a critical and top priority.”

Friends describe Bae as a tour operator and devout Christian who traveled frequently to the impoverished and reclusive country to feed orphans.

His ill-fated trip there last year was with a tour group.

Five other Americans have been detained in North Korea in recent years. All were eventually deported or released, some after the personal intervention of prominent Americans who went to Pyongyang to secure their freedom.