WASHINGTON – The United States on Thursday called for the “immediate release” of a Korean-American tour operator sentenced in North Korea to 15 years of hard labor for “hostile acts” against the government.
Pae Jun-Ho, who is known in the United States as Kenneth Bae, was arrested in November as he entered the northeastern port city of Rason. He has been accused of trying to “topple the DPRK” (North Korea).
“The Supreme Court sentenced him to 15 years of compulsory labor for this crime,” according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), which said his trial was held on April 30.
“There hasn’t been transparency in the case,” Ventrell added, saying Washington still did not “know all of the facts” and was seeking details of the charges filed against Bae.
Kim Jong-Un’s isolated regime is likely to use the detainee as a bargaining chip, experts said, as it seeks concessions from the United States following weeks of bellicose threats of missile strikes and of nuclear war.
Several Americans have been held in North Korea in recent years, and been freed after the visits of high-profile US leaders such as former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Ventrell said he would not “characterize” Bae as being a political pawn, but sidestepped questions about whether the US was thinking of sending an envoy to Pyongyang to press for his release.
A Carter spokeswoman also said the former president has no plans to travel to the isolated nation. “President Carter has not had an invitation to visit North Korea and has no plans to visit,” spokeswoman Deanna Congileo said.
Pyongyang has not specified the basis of the offenses allegedly committed by Bae, who is reported to be aged 44, but KCNA has previously said that he admitted his crimes.
Seoul-based activist Do Hee-Yoon has told AFP that he suspected Bae was arrested because he had taken photographs of emaciated children in North Korea as part of efforts to appeal for more outside aid.
Officials from the Swedish embassy, which acts as America’s protecting power with Pyongyang due to the lack of diplomatic relations, had not attended the trial, Ventrell said, and last visited Bae in jail on April 26.
“Fifteen years of hard labor is something we’re pretty concerned about,” said a senior US official, who asked not to be named, adding that Washington was for now continuing to press through the Swedes for more information.
US politician Bill Richardson failed to secure Bae’s release when he visited North Korea in January with Google chairman Eric Schmidt.
Tensions have been running high between the United States and North Korea since Pyongyang carried out a third nuclear test in February.
The North reacted furiously to the use of nuclear-capable B-52s and B-2 stealth bombers in recent joint US-South Korean military drills.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Washington had “made it clear that there is a path open to the North Koreans that would allow for negotiations.”
But he stressed the North had to demonstrate a “willingness to live up to their international obligations.”
In 2011, a US delegation secured the release of Eddie Jun Yong-Su, a California-based businessman held for apparent missionary activities.
In 2010, Carter won plaudits when he negotiated the release of American national Aijalon Mahli Gomes, sentenced to eight years of hard labor for illegally crossing into the North from China.
And on another mercy mission a year earlier in 2009, Clinton managed to free US television journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, jailed after crossing the North Korean border with China.
Experts believe the North is likely to try to use Bae to extract concessions from Washington.
“But the whole atmosphere is quite different from when similar hostage disputes erupted in the past,” said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.