U.S. calls on Pyongyang to release American

North has long history of using detainees as bargaining chips

The Washington Post, AP

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.

“What we’re urging the DPRK authorities to do is to grant him amnesty and to allow for his immediate release, full stop,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said. The North is formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

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

Analysts say Bae’s sentencing could be an effort by Pyongyang to win diplomatic concessions in the ongoing standoff over its nuclear program. But there was no immediate sign a high-profile envoy was about to make a clemency mission to the isolated nation.

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 nuclear 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.

Bae’s sentence is slightly harsher than others issued to recent American detainees, all of whom were ultimately deported or granted amnesty.

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.

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 Euna Lee, a journalist who was detained by Pyongyang 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.”