The Debate

North Korea Sentences American Citizen to 15 Years Hard Labor

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The Debate

North Korea Sentences American Citizen to 15 Years Hard Labor

North Korea’s motives for sentencing Kenneth Bae to 15 years of hard labor remain unclear.

After spending nearly six months in detention, Kenneth Bae, an American citizen of Korean ethnicity, has been sentenced to 15 years “compulsory labor” in North Korea for unspecified crimes against the country. According to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Bae (referred to by Pae Jun Ho, the North Korean spelling of his name) allegedly confessed to the “hostile acts”.

“In the process of investigation he admitted that he committed crimes aimed to topple the DPRK with hostility toward it,” the KCNA reported last weekend. “His crimes were proved by evidence.”

Bae’s arrest was first reported last December by South Korean Yonhap News, which said that he entered the country via the port city of Rajin last November 3 to carry out a tour in the company of five European tourists. The report said that he was arrested in the special economic zone of Rason in early November when sensitive information was found on a computer hard disk in the possession of one of his tour group members.

While accompanying Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt on his recent trip to the reclusive state, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson attempted to meet with Bae. The request was denied, though Richardson delivered a letter from Bae’s son, who lives in Washington state.

While the U.S. does not maintain official diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, officials from the Swedish Embassy, which represents the U.S. in legal proceedings in the country, visited Bae last month but had nothing further to report.

Last month, an official from the United States told CNN that Bae was not believed to have been harmed in detention. Bae was tried in Pyongyang’s Supreme Court this Tuesday on charges of allegedly plotting to overthrow the government and could have faced the death penalty.

Described by friends as a devout Christian and a tour operator who reportedly runs a travel agency called Nations Tour, the 44-year-old Bae is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in South Korea. At the time of his arrest he was based in the northern Chinese city of Dalian and traveled to North Korea often to feed orphans. Many reports speculating on the nature of his “crimes” have suggested that either his religious convictions or his interest in feeding orphans are likely at the root of his detention and imprisonment.

Do Hee-youn, who heads the Seoul-based Citizens’ Coalition for the Human Rights of North Korean Refugees, told The New York Times, “The most plausible scenario I can think of is that he took some pictures of the orphans, and the North Korean authorities considered that an act of anti-North Korean propaganda.”

Others attribute the imprisonment of Bae, believed to be a member of the Ohio-based Protestant group the Joseph Connection, to covert proselytizing. While the North’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice only state-sanctioned services are permitted.

Cindy Ryu, a Korean-American Washington state representative took this view when speaking with a local Washington publication HeraldNet last December. “Many of us are third- and fourth-generation Christians and many of our pastors are originally from North Korea,” Ryu said. “We want to visit our home country, but in North Korea you cannot say you are a missionary.”

Bae is the sixth U.S. citizen to be detained by North Korea in recent years. Until now, all have been released with the help of the Swedish Embassy. Of the other detainees, three were Christians, including Korean-American missionary Eddie Yong Su Jun who was released after purportedly committing yet another unspecified crime against the state. A similar case involved Robert Park, another Korean-American Christian who entered the country on Christmas Day in 2009 to direct international attention to the North’s human rights abuses.

Perhaps the highest profile case was in 2009 when former U.S. President Bill Clinton made a trip to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of two American journalists – Chinese-American Laura Ling and yet another South Korean-born American Euna Lee – who had been sentenced to hard labor for trespassing and other unspecified acts. Ling and Lee were arrested near the Chinese border and remained in Pyongyang’s custody before being released four months later thanks to Clinton’s visit.

Alongside North Korea’s penchant for arresting those of Korean descent who are oftentimes Christians, there is another common element shared by many of the nation’s cases of detention and arrest. As in 2009, today Pyongyang is engaged in a standoff with Washington D.C. over its nuclear weapons drive – a similarity that many have linked to Bae’s case as well.

“For North Korea, Bae is a bargaining chip in dealing with the U.S.,” Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, told AP. “The North will use him in a way that helps bring the U.S. to talks when the mood slowly turns toward dialogue.”

Ahn Chan-il, head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies think tank in South Korea, agreed with Koh’s assessment. “North Korea is using Bae as bait to make such a visit happen,” Ahn said. “An American bigwig visiting Pyongyang would also burnish Kim Jong Un’s leadership profile.”

Regardless of North Korea’s motives, according to one source who spoke to The Diplomat anonymously, Bae’s case differs from the prior ones in some important ways. “The case of the two journalists is different,” he said. “They snuck into the country and got caught (after crossing back into China). Their crime was something they surely knew to be illegal and was a colossally stupid thing to do.”

The source added, “The journalists and the other Americans arrested in the last few years were caught while in the country with no visa. By contrast, Kenneth Bae seems to have been there legally. Still I don’t think there is anyone who can say with any authority what he was supposed to have done. It’s all guesswork, and guesswork from vested interests.”

Further, asked if Bae’s case would put other tour operators to the North in harm’s way, the source added, “I will be in North Korea next month and don’t expect any problems at all.”