By Jethro Mullen and K.J. Kwon, Seoul, South Korea (CNN) — A North Korean court has sentenced a U.S. citizen to 15 years of hard labor, saying he committed “hostile acts” against the secretive state.
The country’s Supreme Court delivered the sentence against Pae Jun Ho, known as Kenneth Bae by U.S. authorities, on Tuesday, the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Thursday.
The KCNA article said Bae, a Korean-American, was arrested November 3 after arriving as a tourist in Rason City, a port in the northeastern corner of North Korea. It didn’t provide any details about the “hostile acts” he is alleged to have committed.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the United States was still trying to confirm details of the case through Swedish diplomats, who represent U.S. interests in Pyongyang. But he said the State Department is calling on the North — formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — to free Bae.
“We’ve had longstanding concerns about the lack of transparency and due process in the North Korean legal system,” he said. “So now that Mr. Bae has gone through a legal process, we urge the DPRK to grant him amnesty and immediate release.”
Sweden represents U.S. interests in North Korea because Washington has no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. Swedish diplomats were able to visit Bae last week.
The case could get caught up in the tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, which spiked recently after the North carried out its latest underground nuclear test in February and as the United States and South Korea held joint military drills in the region.
Read more: The North Korea we rarely see
The intensity of the menacing rhetoric from North Korea appears to have subsided recently, and the U.S.-South Korean drills finished this week, removing one source of friction. But Kim Jong Un’s regime, which has demanded that North Korea be recognized as a nuclear power, remains unpredictable.
U.S. officials have struggled to establish how exactly Bae fell afoul of North Korean authorities.
“This was somebody who was a tour operator, who has been there in the past and has a visa to go to the North,” a senior U.S. official told CNN on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue.
Read more: Why I fled North Korea
North Korea has arrested other Americans before, only to release them after a visit by a prominent dignitary — sometimes a former president.
In 2010, former President Jimmy Carter secured the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a former English teacher who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for entering the North from China. In 2009, the North freed American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee to former President Bill Clinton. Ling and Lee had been arrested while reporting from the North Korean-Chinese border and sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp.
Analysts say high-level visits are a show of respect toward Pyongyang, a propaganda boost for the North that gives it a face-saving way to release a captive. In 2009, North Korean officials rejected several lower-level envoys before settling on Clinton, who sat for three hours of dinner and photos with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
In one recent case, however, North Korea released an American prisoner without any apparent U.S. intervention. Robert Park had been arrested after crossing into the North to bring “a message of Christ’s love and forgiveness” to Kim Jong Il in December 2009; he was released the following February, after what the state-run news agency KCNA called an “admission and sincere repentance of his wrongdoings.”
But a visit to Pyongyang in January by a delegation led by Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt didn’t appear to make any breakthrough in Bae’s case.
The State Department had objected to the delegation’s trip, saying it was ill-timed. The visit took place about a month after North Korea had launched a long-range rocket that put an object in orbit and prompted condemnation from the international community.
North Korea is considered to have one of the most repressive penal systems in the world. Human rights groups estimate that as many as 200,000 people are being held in a network of prison camps that the regime is believed to use to crush political dissent.
The United Nations Human Rights Council said in March that it would set up a commission of inquiry to examine what it called “grave, widespread and systematic” violations of human rights in North Korea.
North Korea reacted to the move with indignation, saying it had “one of the best systems for promotion and protection of human rights in the world.”
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