News / Asia

Experts: American's Sentence a Bargaining Chip for N. Korea

A passerby watches a local television broadcast in Seoul on May 2, 2013 showing a report and picture of Kenneth Bae (L), a Korean-American tour operator detained in North Korea.
A passerby watches a local television broadcast in Seoul on May 2, 2013 showing a report and picture of Kenneth Bae (L), a Korean-American tour operator detained in North Korea.
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Korean-American tourist Kenneth Bae has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea, in what analysts are describing as a familiar ploy meant to win concessions from Washington and boost Pyongyang's domestic credentials.

At least six Americans have been detained since 2009 in the notoriously reclusive state. While some were given similarly harsh sentences of hard labor, all were eventually released. In most cases, their release was won following much-publicized visits by high-ranking former U.S. officials.

"It's very clear to me that the intention of the North Korean regime is to use [Kenneth Bae] as bargaining leverage and to entice former high ranking U.S. government officials and maybe current high-ranking officials to visit North Korea and thus boost Kim Jong Un's credentials," said Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

"This type of scheme is used not only to try to re-engage and restart some type of dialogue with the United States, but especially to boost the leadership's credentials at home," said Scarlatoiu.

Related - North Korea Sentences American to 15 Years' Hard Labor

That was the pattern seen in 2009, when ex-U.S. President Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea to secure the release of American television journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for what Pyongyang said was illegally entering the country.

North Korean state media at the time seemed to depict Clinton's visit as a trip meant to pay homage to North Korean leadership. It also said he offered a "sincere apology" to North Korea for what it said were the "hostile acts" of the two journalists, a claim later denied by his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

US Citizens Detained by North Korea

  • 2013 - Kenneth Bae sentenced to 15 years hard labor for plotting to overthrow the government.
  • 2011 - Eddie Jun Yong-su detained for apparent missionary-related activities. Released following visit by U.S. delegation.
  • 2010 - Christian activist Aijalon Mahli Gomes sentenced to eight years hard labor. Release secured by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
  • 2009 - Christian missionary Robert Park beaten and detained for 43 days before being released.
  • 2009 - Journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling sentenced to 12 years hard labor. Release secured by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Much like in 2009, the current issue is complicated by Washington's ongoing standoff with the North over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But Korea analyst Mike Chinoy of the University of Southern California's U.S.-China Institute says tensions are now so high, that it is unlikely a government-sponsored trip can be quickly arranged.

"Moreover, the Obama administration has made very clear it's not comfortable getting into the same pattern of behavior we've seen between the United States and North Korea," he said. "I would be very surprised if the Obama administration on its own initiated any kind of high-level envoy."

"The only other question is whether in the normal course of events someone might end up going, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson or former President [Jimmy] Carter, separately from the administration," he said.

Chinoy said he does not know whether such a step would be seen as meaningful enough for the North to release Kenneth Bae. If not, he warns that the 44-year-old may be "stuck for a while" and may have to serve at least some of his 15-year prison term.

Although Americans held in North Korea have often described harsh conditions during their detention, all of the five others detained in recent years were released within a year of being arrested.

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