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N. Korea sentences U.S. man in possible bid for talks

By Sam Kim

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 07:54 a.m. HST, May 02, 2013

SEOUL » A Korean American detained for six months in North Korea has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for "hostile acts" against the state, the North's media said Thursday (Wednesday in Hawaii) — a move that could trigger a visit by a high-profile American if history is any guide.

Kenneth Bae, 44, a Washington state man described by friends as a devout Christian and a tour operator, is at least the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009. The others eventually were deported or released without serving out their terms, some after trips to Pyongyang by prominent Americans, including former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

With already abysmal U.S.-North Korean ties worsening since a long-range rocket-launch more than a year ago, Pyongyang is fishing for another such meeting, said Ahn Chan-il, head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies think tank in South Korea.

"North Korea is using Bae as bait to make such a visit happen. An American bigwig visiting Pyongyang would also burnish Kim Jong Un's leadership profile," Ahn said. Kim took power after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December 2011.

The authoritarian country has faced increasing criticism over its nuclear weapons ambitions. Disarmament talks including the Koreas, the United States, Japan, China and Russia fell apart in 2009. Several rounds of U.N. sanctions have not encouraged the North to give up its small cache of nuclear devices, which Pyongyang says it must not only keep but expand to protect itself from a hostile Washington.

Pyongyang's tone has softened somewhat recently, following weeks of violent rhetoric, including threats of nuclear war and missile strikes. There have been tentative signs of interest in diplomacy, and a major source of North Korean outrage — annual U.S.-South Korean military drills — ended Tuesday.

In Washington, the U.S. State Department said it was working with the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang to confirm the report of Bae's sentencing. The United States lacks formal diplomatic ties with North Korea and relies on Sweden for diplomatic matters involving U.S. citizens there. The Swedish ambassador in Pyongyang, Karl-Olof Andersson, referred queries to the State Department.

"While Washington will do everything possible to spare an innocent American from years of hard labor, U.S. officials are aware that in all likelihood the North Korean regime wants a meeting to demonstrate that the United States in effect confers legitimacy on the North's nuclear-weapon-state status," Patrick Cronin, a senior analyst with the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, said in an email.

Cronin called Bae's conviction "a hasty gambit to force a direct dialogue with the United States."

Bae's trial on charges of "committing hostile acts" against North Korea took place in the Supreme Court on Tuesday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said. The announcement came just days after KCNA said Saturday that authorities would soon indict and try him. KCNA has referred to Bae as Pae Jun Ho, the North Korean spelling for his Korean name.

Bae, from Lynnwood, Washington, was arrested in early November in Rason, a special economic zone in North Korea's far northeastern region bordering China and Russia, state media said. The exact nature of Bae's alleged crimes has not been revealed.

"Kenneth Bae had no access to a lawyer. It is not even known what he was charged with," the human rights group Amnesty International said in a statement. "Kenneth Bae should be released, unless he is charged with an internationally recognizable criminal offense and retried by a competent, independent and impartial court."

Friends and colleagues say Bae was based in the Chinese border city of Dalian and traveled frequently to North Korea to feed orphans. Bae's mother in the United States did not answer calls seeking comment Thursday.

There are parallels to a case in 2009. After Pyongyang's launch of a long-range rocket and its second underground nuclear test that year, two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor after sneaking across the border from China.

They later were pardoned on humanitarian grounds and released to Clinton, who met with then-leader Kim Jong Il. U.S.-North Korea talks came later that year.

In 2011, Carter visited North Korea to win the release of imprisoned American Aijalon Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for crossing illegally into the North from China.

Korean American Eddie Jun was released in 2011 after Robert King, the U.S. envoy on North Korean human rights, traveled to Pyongyang. Jun had been detained for half a year over an unspecified crime.

Jun and Gomes are also devout Christians. While North Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the government.

U.N. and U.S. officials accuse North Korea of treating opponents brutally. Foreign nationals have told varying stories about their detentions in North Korea.

The two journalists sentenced to hard labor in 2009 stayed in a guest house instead of a labor camp due to medical concerns.

Ali Lameda, a member of Venezuela's Communist Party and a poet invited to the North in 1966 to work as a Spanish translator, said that he was detained in a damp, filthy cell without trial the following year after facing espionage allegations that he denied. He later spent six years in prison after a one-day trial, he said.

Associated Press writers Jean H. Lee in Seoul and Lou Kesten in Washington contributed to this report.

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hon2255 wrote:
KIm Jun Un and his cartoon court can go to hell.
on May 1,2013 | 04:56PM
Ronin006 wrote:
This comment was sent for approval: “Bae is a guy so do not expect Bill Clinton to fly into Pyongyang to secure his release as he did for the two chicks who were convicted for entering North Korea illegally three or four years ago.” How did you get your comment approved the H word?
on May 1,2013 | 05:11PM
Who_Said wrote:
Not surprised, human bargaining chips...
on May 1,2013 | 04:59PM
Ronin006 wrote:
Bae is a guy so do not expect Bill Clinton to fly into Pyongyang to secure his release as he did for the two chicks who were convicted for entering North Korea illegally three or four years ago.
on May 1,2013 | 05:06PM
sloturle wrote:
this means WAR!
on May 1,2013 | 05:08PM
pcman wrote:
IRT sloturle, we are not going to war because a stupid American entered North Korea illegally. His extraction should be the responsibility of whomever sent him there, not the US government.
on May 2,2013 | 08:35AM
Ronin006 wrote:
Why was this comment sent for approval??? “Bae is a guy so do not expect Bill Clinton to fly into Pyongyang to secure his release as he did for the two chicks who were convicted for entering North Korea illegally three or four years ago.” Does the word “chicks” somehow offend someone?
on May 1,2013 | 05:09PM
Anonymous wrote:
As if one man in NK could bring down the government. Yes, NK is trying to play hardball with him. Then again, why did Kenneth Bae go in to NK knowing full well what could happen? Hello. You made your bed now sleep in it.
on May 1,2013 | 06:19PM
Carang_da_buggahz wrote:
Not to worry. Obama will feign outrage and look into increasing "sanctions", whatever the heck that means.
on May 1,2013 | 06:31PM
HonoluluHawaii wrote:
No do nothing might make them mad. Just no pay attention. No pilikia.
on May 1,2013 | 08:22PM
jussayin wrote:
You take the risk by going to such a country as NK.
on May 1,2013 | 06:48PM
scooters wrote:
North Korea should be made into a large parking lot!
on May 1,2013 | 07:23PM
saywhatyouthink wrote:
Any American stupid enough to enter NK should expect this type of treatment, these people hate the US as much as the Islamist nuts do.
on May 1,2013 | 09:24PM
Snator wrote:
It's time for the Springtime harvest there, they need all the manual labor they can get.
on May 2,2013 | 02:15AM
Uncleart66 wrote:
Trade him for Rodman.
on May 2,2013 | 03:23AM
Bdpapa wrote:
That would be a good deal for the US!
on May 2,2013 | 06:28AM
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