The Supreme Court of North Korea sentenced American Kenneth Bae to 15 years of hard labor for "crimes against the country." Bae arrived with a tourist group on Nov. 3 and has been held ever since.
An American tour operator has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea for alleged “hostile acts” against the repressive regime, according to its official state news agency.
Kenneth Bae, who is in his mid-40s and lives in Washington state, has been described by friends as a devout Christian who took tourists on trips to North Korea, The Associated Press reported.
He was detained in November, but it has remained unclear what crime he was alleged to have committed.
State news agency KCNA’s brief report was headlined “American Citizen Punished in DPRK,” meaning Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It referred to Bae using a Korean version of his name, Pae Jun Ho.
“A trial of Pae Jun Ho, an American citizen, took place held at the Supreme Court of the DPRK on April 30. He was arrested while committing hostile acts against the DPRK after entering Rason City as a tourist on Nov. 3 last year,” it said.
“The Supreme Court sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor for this crime,” it added.
At least three other Americans detained in recent years also have been devout Christians, the AP said. While North Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the regime.
Washington state Rep. Cindy Ryu told The Herald newspaper in December that Bae might have been doing missionary work in North Korea. "Many of us are third- and fourth-generation Christians and many of our pastors are originally from North Korea," Ryu said. "We want to visit our home country, but in North Korea you cannot say you are a missionary."
Yonhap / Reuters
Kenneth Bae, seen in an undated video still, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea on Thursday.
There have also been reports that Bae took photographs of hungry orphans.
Dennis Kwon, a friend of Bae's since they attended the University of Oregon in Eugene together, told the Oregonian newspaper on Tuesday that Bae had lately been based in the Chinese city of Dalian.
Kwon added Bae went to North Korea to feed orphans and may have taken photographs of them begging for food. “He probably couldn’t walk away from what he saw.” But he added that Bae was “such a warm-hearted person, I can’t imagine him breaking the law."
North Korean officials may have considered the pictures to be “anti-North Korean propaganda,” South Korea-based human rights activist Do Hee-youn told the Christian Post in December.
On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the U.S. was calling on North Korea “to release Kenneth Bae immediately on humanitarian grounds.”
Swedish diplomats in North Korea, who act for the U.S. in issues involving American citizens in North Korea, visited Bae on April 26, Ventrell said, adding he had no further information.
A Facebook page has been set up titled “Remember Ken Bae, Detained in North Korea.”
North Korea defector Kwon Hyo-jin, who spent time in one of the North’s notorious slave labor camps, told Reuters that Bae would probably be sent to a correctional facility that only houses foreigners and had been set up as a model for international human rights groups.”
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Kwon said that in the camp where he was detained for seven years before fleeing to South Korea the prisoners were worked to death and often survived only by eating rats and snakes.
"If an American served jail together with North Korean inmates, which won't happen, he could tell them about capitalism or economic developments. That would be the biggest mistake for North Korea," Kwon told Reuters.
In 2009, American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced to "hard labor" for trespassing and unspecified hostile acts after being arrested near the border with China and held for four months, according to the AP.
They were freed later that year after former President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to negotiate their release in a visit that then-leader Kim Jong Il treated as a diplomatic coup, the news agency said.
Including Ling and Lee, Bae is at least the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009, the AP reported. The others eventually were deported or released.
Ahn Chan-il, head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies think tank in South Korea, told the AP that the North was “using Bae as bait” to get another visit by a leading U.S. political figure.
“An American bigwig visiting Pyongyang would also burnish Kim Jong Un's leadership profile," Ahn added.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
This story was originally published on Thu May 2, 2013 7:03 AM EDT