White House to seek amnesty for US citizen jailed in North Korea

Pyongyang sentences US national to 15 years hard labour for ‘crimes against state’

An undated still image taken from video footage  of US citizen Kenneth Bae. North Korea sentenced Mr  Bae to 15 years hard labour today for what it said were crimes against the state, a move that may see him used as a bargaining chip in talks with Washington.  Photograph: Yonhap/Reuters

An undated still image taken from video footage of US citizen Kenneth Bae. North Korea sentenced Mr Bae to 15 years hard labour today for what it said were crimes against the state, a move that may see him used as a bargaining chip in talks with Washington. Photograph: Yonhap/Reuters

Thu, May 2, 2013, 18:47

The United States plans to call on North Korea to grant amnesty to Kenneth Bae, a US citizen sentenced to 15 years hard labour for what Pyongyang said were crimes against the state, US officials said this evening.

Bae (44) is a naturalised US citizen who was born in South Korea. His sentencing came after two months of sabre-rattling by Pyongyang that saw North Korea threaten both the United States and South Korea with war.

The US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Washington was not currently looking for an envoy to try to secure Bae’s release as it has sometimes done in the past.

The official said the United States has sought in recent years to break out of the historical pattern of lurching from one crisis to another with the North, only to resolve them with transactional deals with Pyongyang.

US president Barack Obama’s aides have described their policy as one of “strategic patience” which seeks to isolate North Korea and not offer diplomatic or economic rewards for its provocations.

North Korea sentenced Bae to 15 years hard labour for unidentifie crimes against after he entered the country last year, a verdict that may exacerbate tensions already running high over the regime’s nuclear program.

Pae Jun Ho, a Korean-American known in the US as Kenneth Bae, was arrested while “committing hostile acts” against North Korea after he entered the border city of Rason as a tourist on November 3rd last, was tried on Tuesday, the official Korean Central News Agency said. The US and South Korea have been in a stand-off 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.

The North may be using the case 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 US detainee,” Mr Yang said. “The regime issued an extremely strong verdict to get the attention of the international community.”

The US calls on the North to release him on humanitarian grounds, Andrew Young, an embassy spokesman, said by text message in Seoul.

The US doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations with North Korea. Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang, who represent US interests there, have met Mr Pae, and the State Department is working with them to resolve the situation, Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said before today’s KCNA announcement.

Rising tensions on the peninsula will dominate bilateral talks between South Korea and the US next week, when president Park Geun Hye makes her first official visit since taking the South’s helm in February.

The verdict comes after the North ratcheted up its rhetoric against the US and South Korea following the February nuclear test. Last month, Kim’s regime said developing nuclear weapons is a top priority. Earlier, the North 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 US-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 has also closed 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.

US delegations have secured the freedom of detainees who were sentenced to years of prison or labour. Former US 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.

They had been sentenced to 12 years of “reform through labour.” 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.

Mr Carter recently expressed to US secretary of state John Kerry his intent to visit Pyongyang to try to broker Mr Pae’s freedom, Yonhap News Agency reported yesterday, 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.

A group led by Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and United Nations ambassador, and Google Inc. Chairman Eric Schmidt failed to secure Mr Pae’s release when it visited Pyongyang in January.

Bloomberg