May 3, 2013

U.S. demands release of American sentenced in North Korea

Analysts say Pyongyang could use Kenneth Bae, a devout Christian and a tour operator, as a bargaining chip as it seeks dialogue with Washington.

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The United States demanded Thursday that North Korea immediately release an American sentenced this week to 15 years of hard labor on charges of trying to overthrow the government.

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This 1988 file photo provided by Bobby Lee shows Kenneth Bae, right, and Lee together when they were freshmen students at the University of Oregon. Bae, detained for nearly six months in North Korea, has been sentenced to 15 years of "compulsory labor" for unspecified crimes against the state, Pyongyang announced Thursday.

AP / The Register-Guard, Bobby Lee

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The Obama administration is calling for amnesty for Kenneth Bae, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said.

"What we're urging the DPRK authorities to do is to grant him amnesty and to allow for his immediate release, full stop," Ventrell said, using the acronym for North Korea's formal title, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

In a brief statement released Thursday by its state-run news agency, the North said its Supreme Court had handed down the sentence for Bae, a tour operator from Washington state, on Tuesday.

Bae's punishment complicates decision-making for Washington, which had been hoping to open talks with North Korea if it showed signs of curbing its weapons program. The North has detained six Americans since 2009, using them in some cases to leverage high-profile rescue trips from former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Ventrell did not rule out another such trip, although Carter's office said he has no plans to go.

In an apparent attempt to appeal to Pyongyang, the State Department did not flatly condemn Bae's trial as a sham, saying only that it has concerns about the transparency and fairness of the legal system in North Korea, and it did not call for the verdict to be nullified.

Before Thursday's announcement, the State Department had appealed for Bae's release on humanitarian grounds.

Bae, 44, was arrested in November while traveling with a small group in Rason, a special economic zone. The North has provided few specifics about his actions there, but activists in Seoul speculate he was perhaps found with pictures of hungry children.

Euna Lee, a journalist who was detained by the North in 2009, wrote in a Facebook post that Bae "guided a tour group to North Korea and was stopped by the authorities for some files on his computer hard drive that he wasn't aware of."

Bae's sentencing follows a tense two-month period during which Pyongyang, under new leader Kim Jong Un, tested an underground nuclear device, nullified an armistice agreement that ended the Korean War and pulled its workers from an industrial complex jointly operated with the South.

The United States does not maintain diplomatic ties with North Korea and uses Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang as proxy representatives when necessary. Swedish Embassy personnel met with Bae last Friday, Ventrell said.

Very few Americans travel to North Korea, which considers the United States its principal enemy. The country has used detained Americans as bargaining chips before, releasing them only after high-profile visits the Kim regime trumpets at home as evidence of its importance to the United States.

In 2010, acting as a private citizen, Carter flew to Pyongyang to secure the release of Aijalon Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor after entering the country illegally. But Bae's sentence is slightly harsher than others issued to recent American detainees, all of whom were ultimately deported or granted amnesty.

The best-known case was in 2009, when Lee and fellow journalist Laura Ling, filming a documentary about defectors, were apprehended after crossing the icy Tumen River into the North from China. The women were freed, but only after Clinton made a trip to Pyongyang, where he met with then-leader Kim Jong Il.

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