The U.S. called for the immediate release of an American citizen after North Korea sentenced the man, Pae Jun Ho, to 15 years’ hard labor for unidentified “hostile acts” against the communist country.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said yesterday that the U.S. is urging North Korea “to grant him amnesty and to allow for his immediate release.”
Pae, a Korean-American known in the U.S. as Kenneth Bae, was arrested after he entered the border city of Rason as a tourist on Nov. 3 and was tried on April 30, the official Korean Central News Agency said.
The verdict announced yesterday may exacerbate tensions already running high over North Korea’s nuclear program. The U.S. and South Korea have been in a standoff with Kim Jong Un’s regime since February, when it tested a nuclear weapon in defiance of United Nations sanctions and then threatened atomic strikes.
“We’ve had longstanding concerns about the lack of transparency and due process in the North Korean legal system,” Ventrell told reporters in Washington. He also said that “this has happened in the past with U.S. citizens.”
North Korea may be using Pae’s verdict to press for talks and get concessions, said Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“This is the strongest sentence North Korea has ordered for a U.S. detainee,” Yang said. “The regime issued an extremely strong verdict to get the attention of the international community.”
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, reiterated the U.S.’s stance that future talks depend on North Korean steps to comply with international agreements against nuclear weapons development and a halt to “provocative actions and rhetoric.”
The U.S. doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations with North Korea. Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang, who represent U.S. interests there, last met with Pae on April 26 and didn’t attend his trial, Ventrell said.
Rising tensions on the peninsula will dominate bilateral talks between South Korea and the U.S. next week, when President Park Geun Hye makes her first official visit to Washington since taking the South’s helm in February.
The Pae verdict comes after the North ratcheted up its rhetoric against the U.S. and South Korea following the February nuclear test. Last month, Kim’s regime said developing nuclear weapons is a top priority.
The North has said it was in a “state of war” with South Korea, and it cut a cross-border hotline. It also threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes in response to U.S.-South Korea military drills.
President Barack Obama’s administration rejected claims the North can launch nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, while warning that Kim’s inexperience increases the chances for miscalculation.
The North also shuttered an industrial park run jointly with the South. The North is refusing to allow seven South Koreans to leave the Gaeseong complex until a dispute over unpaid wages and bills is settled.
Past U.S. delegations have secured the freedom of detainees who were sentenced to years of prison or labor. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton traveled to Pyongyang in 2009 and won the release of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling after they were held for five months for illegally crossing the border between China and North Korea. They had been sentenced to 12 years of “reform through labor.”
Former President Jimmy Carter traveled to North Korea in 2010 to win the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who was sentenced to eight years of hard labor for illegal entry into the North via China.
Carter recently expressed to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry his intent to visit Pyongyang to try to broker Pae’s freedom, Yonhap News Agency reported May 1, citing unnamed diplomatic sources. He last visited the North in April 2011 to help restart nuclear disarmament talks while failing to win the immediate release of another Korean-American prisoner, Jun Young Su, who did get his freedom the next month.
Deanna Congileo, a spokeswoman for the former president, said in an e-mail that Carter “has not had an invitation to visit North Korea and has no plans to visit.”
A group led by Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and United Nations ambassador, and Google Inc. Chairman Eric Schmidt failed to secure Pae’s release when it visited Pyongyang in January.
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