BEIJING - North Korea has sentenced a Korean American to 15 years of hard labor for unspecified "hostile acts" against the state, the North's KCNA news agency announced Thursday.
Kenneth Bae, 44, from Washington state, had been detained since November after entering the country's northeast as either a tourist or tour operator.The sentence comes after months of increasingly dire threats from North Korea, including nuclear war, that appear designed to pressure the U.S. government into making concessions. This latest move turns Bae into a bargaining chip, said analysts in Seoul, the South Korean capital.
He could be used to lure a prominent U.S. visitor to Pyongyang to negotiate his release, and thereby kick-start a dialogue with Washington.
Said to be a devout Christian, who ran a travel company from the northeast China city of Dalian, Bae had previously visited North Korea several times without incident. He was tried at the Supreme Court on April 30, said KCNA. A guilty verdict was inevitable after another KCNA report Saturday claimed "he admitted that he committed crimes aimed to topple the DPRK with hostility toward it. His crimes were proved by evidence."
In several cases since 2009, the USA has sent high-profile envoys to secure the release of U.S. citizens detained in North Korea. In 2009, former President Bill Clinton brought home two U.S. journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were serving 12 years hard labor after crossing the border illegally.
This time the outcome may be harder to predict, analysts warned, as Washington may resist the old model for tackling these cases, while North Korea's young ruler Kim Jung Un, the third generation of Kim family dictators to rule the isolated state, may revise his father's playbook. Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico, and Eric Schmidt, Google chief executive, were unable to meet Bae during a January 2013 visit.
The current crisis on the Korean peninsula worsened after the North's February 12 nuclear test drew additional United Nations sanctions. Pyongyang insists on recognition as a nuclear state, and an immediate end to sanctions. U.S. Secretary of state John Kerry has said dialogue with North Korea remains conditional on the regime demonstrating genuine commitment to ending its nuclear weapons program.
After the failure of its "high-risk, high-return strategy" over recent months, "North Korea is trying to shift toward so-called 'kidnapping diplomacy'," said Kim Sung-han, a former South Korean vice minister of foreign affairs and trade. This new phase in Pyongyang's diplomacy has a highly familiar goal, said Kim, now an international relations professor at Korea University in Seoul.
North Korea wants "a U.S. envoy like former Presidents Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter to come to Pyongyang, to make the United States kowtow to Pyongyang, that's exactly what North Korea intends to achieve, and why they so quickly gave [Bae] a sentence," said Kim. "They've sent the ball to the U.S. side."
Washington is unlikely to make concessions, but "if a US citizen is being abused by a totalitarian regime, the USA cannot sit idly by, and will probably be considering some action," he said. Bae is being used as a "hostage," agreed Tong Kim, an international relations expert, also at Korea University. The case "may open up an opportunity for a prominent U.S. citizen to visit Pyongyang, to bring him out, but it won't lead to any significant outbreak of dialogue," said Tong, a former U.S. State Department official.
While the Obama administration will appeal for Bae's release, it "will not want to follow the same pattern that occurred in the Ling and Lee case," said Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "The idea of having high-profile visitors come to North Korea to bring back Americans is fraught with moral hazard, and carries with it perceived political benefits for the DPRK leadership," he said. "But it doesn't bring any political benefit to the American President."
Bae's alleged crimes remain unclear, but are likely to be "an extraordinary exaggeration" by a regime that shows "paranoia and hyper sensitivity to any criticism, intentional or unintentional," said Daniel Pinkston, a North East Asia expert for the International Crisis Group in Seoul. "Something on a hard drive, taking photos, or maybe saying something, almost anything can be considered sensitive to the regime," he said.
North Korean authorities "are in the middle of this coercive bargaining game," to be accepted internationally as a nuclear state, and to re-orientate their relationship with South Korea, said Pinkston. "They'll do whatever they can to further that objective," including the use of Bae as a bargaining chip, he said. But the pattern of negotiation and release of U.S. citizens was set under the rule of Kim Jong Il, warned Pinkston. "We have new leadership now, we'll have to see what unfolds."