North Korea Sentences American Man to 15 Years of Hard Labor

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
May 2 2013 10:48 AM

Kim Jong-Un's New Bargaining Chip is a 44-Year-Old American Tour Operator

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This photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on Thursday shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) visiting the Ministry of People's Security to congratulate the people's security persons and service personnel of the Korean People's Internal Security Forces (KPISF) on May Day.

Photo by KCNA VIA KNS/AFP/Getty Images

The Washington Post bring us news of the United States' latest Hermit Kingdom headache:

North Korea on Thursday sentenced a detained American to 15 years of “compulsory labor,” punishment for what Pyongyang describes as an attempt to overthrow its government. In a brief statement released by its state-run news agency, the North said the sentence for Kenneth Bae, a tour operator from Washington state, had been handed down by its Supreme Court on Tuesday. ...
Bae was arrested last November while traveling with a small group in Rason, a special economic zone. The North has provided few specifics about Bae’s actions there, but activists in Seoul speculate he was perhaps found with pictures of hungry children.
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According to Reuters, Bae, 44 was born in South Korea but is a naturalized citizen, and has been described as a devout Christian.

North Korea has detained a half-dozen Americans in the past four years, using them mostly as international bargaining chips. Two U.S. journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were sentenced to 12 years in prison camps in 2009, although they were instead freed after Bill Clinton made a trip to Pyongyang to secure their release. Jimmy Carter made a similar diplomatic trip in 2010 to free a Boston man, Aijalon Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for entering the country illegally from China.

Neither of the former presidents' trips were official state visits, but they nonetheless offered Kim Jong-il the photo-ops and attention he desired. It's likely his son, Kim Jong-un, will use the same playbook and use his current prisoner as bait to attract a high-profile visit. Negotiations over Bae—along with the decision of who to send to go get him—may be a little more complicated, however, given Kim Jong-un's recent rhetoric and ongoing threats to nuke both South Korea and the United States. The current odds-on favorite to draw the short straw? Carter, at least according to South Korean media.

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

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