SEOUL, South Korea – A Korean American detained for six months in North Korea has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for “hostile acts” against the state, the North’s media said Thursday – a move that could trigger a visit by a high-profile American if history is any guide.
Kenneth Bae, a Washington state man described by friends as a devout Christian and a tour operator, is at least the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009. The others eventually were deported or released without serving out their terms, some after trips to Pyongyang by prominent Americans, including former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
With already abysmal U.S.-North Korean ties worsening since a long-range rocket-launch more than a year ago, Pyongyang is fishing for another such meeting, said Ahn Chan-il, head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies think tank in South Korea.
“North Korea is using Bae as bait to make such a visit happen. An American bigwig visiting Pyongyang would also burnish Kim Jong Un’s leadership profile,” Ahn said. Kim took power after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December 2011.
The authoritarian country has faced increasing criticism over its nuclear weapons ambitions. Disarmament talks including the Koreas, the United States, Japan, China and Russia fell apart in 2009. Several rounds of U.N. sanctions have not encouraged the North to give up its small cache of nuclear devices, which Pyongyang says it must not only keep but expand to protect itself from a hostile Washington.