SEOUL – North Korea has sentenced a U.S. citizen to 15 years of prison labor for “hostile acts” against the communist regime, the country’s official Korean Central News Agency reported Thursday.
Pae Jun Ho, known in the United States as Kenneth Bae, was arrested in November as he entered the northeastern port city of Rason.
“The Supreme Court sentenced him to 15 years of compulsory labor for this crime,” KCNA said.
Pyongyang has not specified the basis of the crimes allegedly committed by Bae, who is believed to be a Korean-American tour operator and a devout Christian.
KCNA said Saturday when announcing his trial that Bae had “admitted that he committed crimes aimed to topple the DPRK.” The country is formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
State media said Bae’s trial took place Tuesday but provided few new details. Bae could have faced the death penalty.
The United States has urged the North to free the detainee on “humanitarian grounds.”
“The welfare of U.S. citizens is a critical and top priority for this department. We call on the DPRK to release Kenneth Bae immediately on humanitarian grounds,” deputy acting State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Monday.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said last week that officials from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang had visited Bae on Friday.
Seoul-based activist Do Hee Yoon said he suspected Pae was arrested because he had taken photographs of emaciated children and the public executions of dissenters as part of efforts to appeal for more outside aid. Friends and colleagues said Bae was based in the Chinese border city of Dalian and traveled frequently to North Korea to feed the country’s orphans.
U.S. officials have pointed out that Bae had entered the country on a valid visa, and admitted to concerns he could be used as a “political bargaining” chip.
Bae is at least the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009. The others eventually were deported or released.
In 2011, a U.S. delegation led by Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for human rights and humanitarian issues, secured the release of Eddie Jun Yong-Su, a California-based businessman who had been detained for apparent missionary activities.
In 2010, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter won plaudits when he negotiated the release of American national Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for illegally crossing into North Korea from China.
On another mercy mission a year earlier, former President Bill Clinton won the release of U.S. television journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, jailed after wandering across the North Korean border with China.
Experts believe the North is likely to try to use Bae to extract concessions from Washington.
“The North will surely try to take advantage of Kenneth Bae as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the U.S.,” said Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“But the whole atmosphere is quite different from when similar hostage disputes erupted in the past. The diplomatic and military situation is so tense that the U.S. is unlikely to dramatically change its stance or try to open dialogue with the North just to save this guy,” he said.