U.S. demands release of American sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea

An American citizen has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea, a sentence that may be a negotiating ploy to entice U.S. diplomats.

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.

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 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.

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 that 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.

Take a look at some of the major events of the past decade between North Korea, the United States and other nations.

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 that 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.

Lee and Ling had initially been sentenced to 12 years in a prison camp, following a brief trial in an office building that had been converted temporarily into a courtroom. As Ling describes in her book, released in 2010 and co-written with her sister, she had little faith in the trial but hoped her repeated apologies would win leniency.

As the trial drew to a close, Ling wrote, the prosecutor linked her actions with those of the U.S. government, which was described as “constantly meddling in North Korean affairs.”

When the judge handed down his sentence, he vowed there would be no forgiveness and no appeal.

“It wasn’t the sentence’s harshness that shocked me,” Ling wrote. “I had predicted all along they might give me a long prison term to send a message to the outside world. It was the phrases ‘no forgiveness’ and ‘no appeal’ that tore into me.”

Also Thursday, the Pentagon said in a report to Congress that North Korea appears to be on track to fulfill its stated goal of being able to strike the United States with a nuclear-armed missile.

The report said the North’s efforts toward that end had been greatly aided by its work on a space-launch vehicle, highlighted by the launch of a satellite into space in December. But it added that the North has yet to test a reentry vehicle, needed for delivering a warhead to a target.

Chico Harlan covers personal economics as part of The Post's financial team.
Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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