The US on Thursday called for the “immediate release” of a Korean-American sentenced in North Korea to 15 years of hard labor for “hostile acts” against the government.
“What we’re urging the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] authorities to do is to grant him amnesty and to allow for his immediate release, full stop,” deputy acting US Department of State spokesman Patrick Ventrell told journalists.
Pae Jun-ho, who is known in the US as Kenneth Bae, was arrested in November last year as he entered the northeastern port city of Rason. He has been accused of trying to “topple the DPRK.”
“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 Tuesday.
“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.
Several US citizens 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 a political pawn, but sidestepped questions about whether the US was thinking of sending an envoy to Pyongyang to press for his release.
Pyongyang has not specified the basis of the offenses allegedly committed by Bae.
However, Seoul-based activist Do Hee-yoon told reporters 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 the US’ 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 Tuesday last week.
“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.
Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson failed to secure Bae’s release when he visited North Korea in January.
Tensions have been running high between the US and North Korea since Pyongyang carried out a third nuclear test in February.
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.”
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.