An American citizen who went to North Korea late last year as a tour guide has been arrested and charged by the North Korean Supreme Court on a vague charge of attempting to overthrow the government.
Kenneth Bae, 44, an American of South Korean descent whom friends describe as a devout Christian, had been detained in November of last year in the city of Rason, near the Russian border. Bae was traveling with a group of tourists at the time of his arrest.
The Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s state-run media, released a statement over the weekend alleging Bae had admitted to “committing crimes aimed to topple the democratic People’s Republic of Korea with hostility toward it.”
He has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
Those who know Bae said he has an interest in humanitarian issues and may have been arrested for possessing pictures of orphaned, vagrant North Korean children.
“Mr. Bae has been supporting an orphanage and running a bakery with the North Korean authorities’ agreement. But he is being detained for taking pictures of homeless children,” said Do Hee-yoon, who works with a human rights group in Seoul.
Bae is the sixth known American to have been detained in North Korea since 2009. A pattern has emerged over that time, indicating the North Korean government may view such arrests as bargaining chips in diplomatic relations with the United States and may time them to initiate an American response whenever there’s been an especially dire deterioration in the two nations’ perpetually strained relations.
In addition, baiting American dignitaries into meetings that take place on North Korean soil may serve the regime’s domestic propaganda function. As Reuters surmises:
North Korea appears to use the release of high profile American prisoners to extract a form of personal tribute, rather than for economic or diplomatic gain, often portraying visiting dignitaries as paying homage.
Two U.S. journalists were arrested in 2009 and sentenced to hard labor, but they were pardoned into the custody of former President Bill Clinton after he traveled to Pyongyang to secure their release. In the bargain, former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, excoriated by the United States for recent underground nuclear tests, got some face time with Clinton, which eventually led to a temporary reprieve in escalating tensions.
Similarly, former President Jimmy Carter flew to North Korea in 2010 to negotiate the release of an American who had allegedly entered the country illegally.
Bae’s sentencing follows an acrimonious start to new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s relationship with the United States, with the Supreme Leader escalating war rhetoric and conducting a series of tests (one involving a nuclear weapon) and border drills since the start of President Barack Obama’s second term in office.
A Facebook vigil page calling for Bae’s release has been set up.