North Korea: Pyongyang ups ante with 15-year sentence for US tour operator

Kenneth Bae could  be used as bargaining chip in nuclear standoff with Washington

Kenneth Bae’s hopes of a quick escape from North Korea were dealt a blow last night when former US president Jimmy Carter denied that he was set to fly out to negotiate his release.

Mr Bae, 44, a tour operator of Korean descent, was sentenced to 15 years hard labour this week after being arrested near the North’s border with China last November and charged with alleged anti-government crimes.

The conviction ups the ante in Pyongyang’s two-month face-off with Washington, which began with the announcement of new United Nations sanctions in March and the start of US-South Korea war games on the divided Peninsula. 

Mr Bae has already spent months in a cell, according to the Seoul-based Korea Herald and may now become a bargaining chip in Pyongyang’s unique brand of white-knuckle diplomacy.

Five American citizens have been detained inside the North since 2009 and some have also been sentenced to long prison terms with hard labour.  The best-known are journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, charged with “hostile acts against the republic” in March 2009 and only freed after another former president, Bill Clinton, met the now-deceased leader Kim Jong-il.

Their arrests drew worldwide attention to the North’s chain of labour camps, where an estimated 150,000-200,000 prisoners are detained, according to the US State Department. Defectors say the gulags are often built near mines or logging camps and frequently work inmates to death. Many of the prisoners are children or the relatives of political outcasts. 

As American citizens, however, Lee and Ling were treated well during their 140-day ordeal, though they rarely had enough to eat. 

Unlike North Korean prisoners, of course, the treatment of Americans is monitored – Swedish diplomatic envoys in the North have been in contact with Mr Bae for months.

Mr Bae was arrested after he crossed the North’s Korean border city of Rajin in November, while leading a group of five visitors. The area is trying to attract foreign investment and tourists, and is also a well-known base for Korean Christian activists sheltering refugees. It is possible that Mr Bae, reportedly a devout Christian, was in contact with these groups. 

His conviction, confirmed by the North’s official Korea Central News Agency, may be an attempt to draw in US negotiators and end weeks of provocation and threats that have triggered fears of war on the Peninsula. That would give the North a face-saving propaganda victory and short-circuit Washington’s conditions for face-to-face talks – principally that the regime scrap its nuclear weapons programme. Jimmy Carter is widely credited with pulling the North and the US back from the brink of war in 1994 when he visited Pyongyang and negotiated an energy deal with Kim Jong-il.

In 2010, he won the release of American Aijalon Mahli Gomes, sentenced to eight years’ hard labour for illegally entering the North. According to the South Korean Yonhap news agency, he has told Secretary of State John Kerry he is returning to Pyongyang. “North Korea appears to have invited him,” said the agency, quoting an anonymous diplomatic source in Seoul.

The story was denied last night by Carter’s spokesperson, Deanna Congileo. “President Carter has not had an invitation to visit North Korea and has no plans to visit,” she said. But the ex-president last month urged Washington to open a dialogue with Pyongyang and avoid war. “I can tell you that what North Koreans want is a peace treaty with the United States,” Mr Carter said, “and they want the 60-year economic embargo lifted against their people so they can have an equal chance to trade.”

Welcome to Pyongyang: Other detainees

American Kenneth Bae is not the first foreigner to be sentenced to prison in North Korea. Euna Lee, Laura Ling, Robert Park and Aijalon Mahli Gomes, all former prisoners, will be familiar with his plight.

Euna Lee and Laura Ling are two American journalists who were arrested in March 2009 for entering North Korea illegally. They were found guilty in June 2009 and sentenced to 12 years of hard labour. Lee and Ling were released in August when former President Bill Clinton arrived in North Korea to assist in their release. Robert Park is a Christian missionary from Arizona and on Christmas Day in 2009 he was also arrested for illegal entry into North Korea. He was detained for 43 days and then released.

Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a friend of Park’s and teacher from Boston, entered North Korea in January 2010. He was arrested for illegal entry. Gomes was released in late August 2010 after former American President Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang to negotiate his release.

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