TOKYO — North Korea has sentenced Matthew Miller to six years of hard labor for committing “hostile acts,” after the American reportedly ripped up his tourist visa upon arrival at the Pyongyang airport in April.
During a show trial that lasted 90 minutes, the Supreme Court found that Miller — who had no legal representation — had committed “acts hostile to the DPRK while entering . . . under the guise of a tourist,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported, using the official abbreviation for North Korea.
Analysts say that Pyongyang is using Miller and two other men as bargaining chips in its dispute with Washington over its nuclear program — but that the United States is preoccupied with the turmoil in the Middle East, where Islamic State extremists are not just capturing Westerners but also beheading them .
KCNA photos showed Miller, looking pale and wearing a black turtleneck despite it being summer, in a courtroom decorated with a North Korean flag.
Although the setup resembled a courtroom in democratic countries, very little is known about North Korea’s justice system, except that it is neither independent nor transparent.
Before Miller was handcuffed and led from the room, the three regime-appointed judges said they would not consider any appeals, according to reports from Pyongyang.
North Korea has three Americans in custody: Miller; Jeffrey Fowle , a 56-year-old from Ohio who was arrested in May after leaving a Bible in a seamen’s club in the northeastern city of Chongjin and who is awaiting trial; and Kenneth Bae, a Korean American missionary who is two years into a 15-year hard-labor sentence for “hostile acts to bring down the government.”
In North Korea, where the only religion is devotion to the ruling Kim family, proselytizing is considered treasonous and carries heavy penalties, and ethnic Koreans face harsher treatment than Caucasian or other Americans.
Miller and Fowle are being held separately in hotel rooms in Pyongyang — they apparently have not seen each other — while North Korea has created what amounts to a one-man prison camp for Bae, who is working eight hours a day, six days a week in the fields.
But Kim Jong Un’s regime, which is trying to lure tourists even as it detains the three men, apparently wants to cut a deal with the United States.
It delivered the three Americans to visiting news organizations in Pyongyang this month for highly orchestrated interviews , during which each of the men called on Washington to send an envoy to secure their release.
Other Americans detained in North Korea have been released after visits by former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Pyongyang used the diplomats’ arrivals for internal propaganda. Footage of former American leaders in the North Korean capital is presented as a sign of North Korea having the upper hand.
The State Department has offered to send Robert King, its point man on North Korean human rights, to Pyongyang, but nothing has come of it. The regime apparently wants someone with a higher profile.
Even for North Korea, the Miller case is unusual.
Initial reports said that when he arrived April 10 in Pyongyang, he tore up his tourist visa and shouted that he wanted asylum. “He came to the DPRK after choosing it as a shelter,” the KCNA reported.
In an interview with CNN this month, during which Miller was monitored by North Korean officials, he said he “prepared to violate the law of DPRK before coming here, and I deliberately committed my crime.”
During Sunday’s trial, Miller said he tore up his tourist visa at the Pyongyang airport because he had the “wild ambition” of experiencing prison life in North Korea so he could write about human rights in the country, reported the Associated Press, which was allowed to attend the trial.
The asylum stunt was just a trick by Miller to get himself into a jail, the prosecution said. It also said that he falsely claimed to have secret information about the U.S. military in South Korea on his iPad and iPod, the AP reported.
Another photo released by the KCNA showed an iPod and an iPad, with chargers.
Miller’s and Fowle’s families have been actively lobbying for their release, calling on the U.S. government to do more. Fowle’s Russian wife has appealed to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who has better relations with North Korea, to intervene.
But little is known about Miller, who is in his mid-20s and comes from Bakersfield, Calif.
The State Department has said it will make every effort to get the men released.
Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, has accused North Korea of using Americans as “pawns.”
“This is the way that they play,” he told Reuters news agency on Friday. “They use human beings, and in this case American citizens, as pawns. And we find that both objectionable and distressing.”