SEOUL, South Korea — By sentencing a U.S. citizen to 15 years of hard labor this week for committing hostile acts against North Korea’s government, North Korea is forcing the United States to choose between two equally distasteful options, analysts said Thursday.
The United States, as it did twice in the past when Americans were held hostage by North Korea, could send a former president to win the release of Kenneth Bae, of Lynnwood, Wash., who was convicted and sentenced Tuesday in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. Then, North Korea, as it did before, could advertise such a visit as a U.S. capitulation before its new leader, Kim Jong Un.
Or the United States could try to break North Korea’s habit of blackmailing adversaries by ignoring its latest tactic — and see one of its citizens languish in one of North Korea’s infamous prison camps.
The State Department signaled Thursday that the Obama administration was not prepared, for now, to seek Bae’s release through a high-profile mission to North Korea.
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A State Department spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, said the administration had “longstanding concerns about the lack of transparency and due process in the North Korean legal system.” He added that the administration wanted Bae to be granted “amnesty and immediate release.”
Asked if a high-profile mission to free Bae were an option, Ventrell said, “I’m not aware one way or another.” He added that the administration was urging North Korea “to grant him amnesty and to allow for his immediate release, full stop.”
Ventrell said the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which handles consular matters there for the U.S., did not attend the Supreme Court trial.
By taking the tougher approach, the Obama administration is assuming the risk that one of its citizens will be incarcerated indefinitely.
The sentencing comes at a time of high tension between the North and the United States over the North’s nuclear program, and it was issued the same day that joint U.S.-South Korean military drills ended. With the end of the drills, some analysts have said, North Korea might tone down its bellicosity and shift its focus toward drawing Washington, D.C., back to the negotiating table — using, among other things, Bae’s plight as bait.
“The timing of the sentencing makes us think that the North is again playing its old card,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea specialist at Dongguk University in Seoul. “But will the Americans play the same game? If Washington sends a former president whenever North Korea holds an American captive, they say, it will run out of former presidents.”
Bae, 44, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was born in South Korea. He spent seven terms as a full-time student at the University of Oregon between 1988 and 1990, the Eugene Register-Guard reported, adding that he was a psychology major but did not earn a degree.
Bae ran a tour business out of China and was arrested in the special economic zone of Rason in northeastern North Korea in November after leading a group of businessmen there from Yanji, China.
South Korean human-rights advocates have said Bae, who was based in the Chinese border city of Dalian, not only ran tours to North Korea but also was interested in helping orphans there and traveled there frequently to feed orphans. They said security officials in North Korea may have been offended by pictures of them that Bae had taken and stored in his computer.
North Korea had said Saturday that it was indicting him on charges that he tried to overthrow North Korea’s government, a crime that called for a punishment as severe as the death penalty. But Thursday, it said its Supreme Court convicted him of “hostile acts,” a lesser charge.
Like other Americans detained in the North in recent years, Bae is a Christian, according to rights advocates. While North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice it cracks down on religious activities, according to human-rights groups, and is wary of Christians who visit.
Bae is at least the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009. The others eventually were deported or released. Two were released in 2009 when former President Clinton visited Pyongyang and met with Kim Jong Il, the leader at the time. Another was released when former President Carter visited Pyongyang. Carter’s office said he has no plans regarding the Bae case.
Americans recently held prisoner in the North were kept in special facilities, away from domestic inmates, possibly out of fear that when released, they would testify about the condition of prison camps where the State Department says starvation and forced labor remain rampant. Under North Korean law, Bae should be transferred to a labor camp within 10 days of the ruling.
Material from The Associated Press and The Washington Post
is included in this report.