SEOUL, South Korea — An American detained for nearly six months in North Korea has been sentenced to 15 years of “compulsory labor” for unspecified crimes against the state, Pyongyang announced Thursday.
The sentencing of Kenneth Bae, described by friends as a devout Christian and a tour operator, will further complicate already strained relations between Pyongyang and Washington as the countries pursue tentative diplomacy following weeks of warlike threats from North Korea.
Pyongyang’s official state media said Bae’s trial took place Tuesday, but the dispatch provided few new details. Bae was tried in the country’s Supreme Court on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. He could’ve faced the death penalty.
“The Supreme Court sentenced him to 15 years of compulsory labor for this crime,” the Korean Central News Agency said.
The exact nature of his alleged crimes has not been revealed.
Bae was arrested in early November in Rason, a special economic zone in North Korea’s far northeastern region bordering China and Russia, North Korea said.
The trial mirrors a similar situation in 2009, when the U.S. and North Korea were locked in a standoff over Pyongyang’s decision to launch a long-range rocket and conduct an underground nuclear test. At the time, North Korea had detained two American journalists, whose eventual release after being sentenced to 12 years of hard labor paved the way for diplomacy following months of tensions.
In North Korean dispatches, Bae, a Korean American from Washington state, is called Pae Jun Ho, the North Korean spelling of his Korean name.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said last week that officials from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang had visited Bae on Friday. She said she had no other information to share.
Because Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic relations, the Swedish Embassy in North Korea represents the United States in legal proceedings.
Friends and colleagues said Bae was based in the Chinese border city of Dalian and traveled frequently to North Korea to feed the country’s orphans.
KCNA on Thursday described Bae as a “tourist” who was arrested while committing “hostile acts” against North Korea.
At least three other Americans detained in recent years also have been devout Christians. While North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the regime.
In 2009, American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced to “hard labor” for trespassing and unspecified hostile acts after being arrested near the border with China and held for four months.
They were freed later that year to former President Bill Clinton, who flew to Pyongyang to negotiate their release in a visit that then-leader Kim Jong Il treated as a diplomatic coup.
Including Ling and Lee, Bae is at least the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009. The others eventually were deported or released.