A television program shows a photo of Korean American Kenneth Bae at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, on May 2. (Ahn Young-joon/AP)
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SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — A Korean American detained for six months in North Korea has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for “hostile acts” against the state, the North’s media said Thursday — a move that could trigger a visit by a high-profile American if history is any guide.
Kenneth Bae, 44, a Washington state man described by friends as a devout Christian and a tour operator, is at least the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009. The others eventually were deported or released without serving out their terms, some after trips to Pyongyang by prominent Americans, including former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
With already abysmal U.S.-North Korean ties worsening since a long-range rocket-launch more than a year ago, Pyongyang is fishing for another such meeting, said Ahn Chan-il, head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies think tank in South Korea.
“North Korea is using Bae as bait to make such a visit happen. An American bigwig visiting Pyongyang would also burnish Kim Jong Un’s leadership profile,” Ahn said. Kim took power after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December 2011.
The authoritarian country has faced increasing criticism over its nuclear weapons ambitions. Six-nation disarmament talks involving the Koreas, the United States, Japan, China and Russia fell apart in 2009. Several rounds of U.N. sanctions have not encouraged the North to give up its small cache of nuclear devices, which Pyongyang says it must not only keep but expand to protect itself from a hostile Washington.
Pyongyang’s tone has softened somewhat recently, following weeks of violent rhetoric, including threats of nuclear war and missile strikes. There have been tentative signs of interest in diplomacy, and a major source of North Korean outrage — annual U.S.-South Korean military drills — ended Tuesday.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department said it was working with the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang to confirm the report of Bae’s sentencing. The United States lacks formal diplomatic ties with North Korea and relies on Sweden for diplomatic matters involving U.S. citizens there. The Swedish ambassador in Pyongyang, Karl-Olof Andersson, referred queries to the State Department.
Patrick Cronin, a senior analyst with the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, called Bae’s conviction “a hasty gambit to force a direct dialogue with the United States.”
“While Washington will do everything possible to spare an innocent American from years of hard labor, U.S. officials are aware that in all likelihood the North Korean regime wants a meeting to demonstrate that the United States in effect confers legitimacy on the North’s nuclear-weapon-state status,” Cronin said in an email.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One en route to Mexico that if North Korea is interested in talks, they should live up to their obligations under the six-party talks.
“Thus far, as you know, they have flouted their obligations, engaged in provocative actions and rhetoric that brings them no closer to a situation where they can improve the lot of the North Korean people or re-enter the community of nations,” Carney said.
Bae’s trial on charges of “committing hostile acts” against North Korea took place in the Supreme Court on Tuesday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said. The announcement came just days after KCNA said Saturday that authorities would soon indict and try him. KCNA has referred to Bae as Pae Jun Ho, the North Korean spelling for his Korean name.
Bae, from Lynnwood, Washington, was arrested in early November in Rason, a special economic zone in North Korea’s far northeastern region bordering China and Russia, state media said. The exact nature of Bae’s alleged crimes has not been revealed.
“Kenneth Bae had no access to a lawyer. It is not even known what he was charged with,” the human rights group Amnesty International said in a statement. “Kenneth Bae should be released, unless he is charged with an internationally recognizable criminal offense and retried by a competent, independent and impartial court.”
Friends and colleagues say Bae was based in the Chinese border city of Dalian and traveled frequently to North Korea to feed orphans. Bae’s mother in the United States did not answer calls seeking comment Thursday.
There are parallels to a case in 2009. After Pyongyang’s launch of a long-range rocket and its second underground nuclear test that year, two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor after sneaking across the border from China.
They later were pardoned on humanitarian grounds and released to Clinton, who met with then-leader Kim Jong Il. U.S.-North Korea talks came later that year.
In 2011, Carter visited North Korea to win the release of imprisoned American Aijalon Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for crossing illegally into the North from China.
Korean American Eddie Jun was released in 2011 after Robert King, the U.S. envoy on North Korean human rights, traveled to Pyongyang. Jun had been detained for half a year over an unspecified crime.
Jun and Gomes are also devout Christians. While North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the government.
U.N. and U.S. officials accuse North Korea of treating opponents brutally. Foreign nationals have told varying stories about their detentions in North Korea.
The two journalists sentenced to hard labor in 2009 stayed in a guest house instead of a labor camp due to medical concerns.
Ali Lameda, a member of Venezuela’s Communist Party and a poet invited to the North in 1966 to work as a Spanish translator, said that he was detained in a damp, filthy cell without trial the following year after facing espionage allegations that he denied. He later spent six years in prison after a one-day trial, he said.
Associated Press writers Lou Kesten and Nedra Pickler in Washington contributed to this report.