All eyes on Kim Jong-un after North Korea gives 15 years' hard labor to US citizen

North Korea says US citizen Kenneth Bae was conspiring to overthrow the regime. But analysts say the North is likely to use him as a new bargaining chip.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
A South Korean man watches a television news program showing Korean American Kenneth Bae at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, May 2. Bae 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.

North Korea sentenced a US citizen to 15 years of hard labor today, after finding him guilty of crimes against the state. The move seems yet another in a series of efforts to gain interaction, attention, or concessions from the United States, some analysts believe. 

Kenneth Bae was taken into custody in November while leading a legal tour in North Korea, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. He was tried on April 30, and found guilty of unspecified “hostile acts” against the North Korean state. A number of Americans have been detained and sentenced in the past few years but the 15-year sentence is the longest given to a US citizen there.

The country’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, has taken a number of bold and provocative positions since taking over from his father last year, of which this is the latest. The direction Mr. Kim takes now – and the US response – may start to set a deeper pattern for Kim's rule and for US-North Korean relations. 

“The question is whether or not the US will be willing to intervene on behalf of a citizen, given the high tensions, and whether it will kowtow to a repressive state that is known for human rights violations,” says Leonid Petrov, a researcher in Korean studies at Australian National University.

Mr. Bae, a tour operator born Pae Jun-ho in South Korea, became a US citizen more than two decades ago and has lived in Washington State. He had reportedly led a number of tours to North Korea previously, without incident.

North Korean reports indicated that Bae, who has been described as a devout Christian in Western media reports, was found with some photographs or other materials that North Korean authorities said showed Bae's desire to overthrow the Kim regime.

"In the process of investigation he admitted that he committed crimes aimed to topple the DPRK [the Democratic People's Republic of Korea] with hostility toward it,” according to the official KCNA news agency. 

Tensions have been high on the Korean Peninsula following North Korea’s third nuclear test on Feb. 12, and two months of an annual US-South Korea military exercise that ended April 30. Although tensions were expected to cool a bit after the end of the drills, analysts worry the sentence could reignite them. Alternatively, many speculate that North Korea is hoping to use Bae as a bargaining chip to secure aid.

Though the US and North have no formal diplomatic ties, the North has indicated it is interested in dialogue with Washington.

The impoverished country, prone to food shortages, has recently reached out to Mongolia for food aid. The US says it is open to dialogue but on the condition that North Korea gives up its nuclear ambitions, which Pyongyang sees as a nonstarter.

Five other US citizens have been detained in North Korea since 2009 and all were eventually released, according to The Associated Press.  American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were charged with “hostile acts” after being arrested by North Korean border patrols in 2009 while reporting along the border with China. They were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor, but were pardoned and released after former President Bill Clinton, who is viewed with relative favor in Pyongyang, traveled to North Korea and met with then-leader Kim Jong-il

Staff from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang met with Bae on behalf of the US, but were unable to secure his release. In January, Google executive Eric Schmidt and Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico, reportedly asked to meet with Bae when they traveled to North Korea, though they were not permitted to do so.

With his Swiss prep-school education and reported Western-style tastes and hobbies, some analysts suggested after Kim took power in January 2011 that he could be the leader to bring North Korea out of isolation, possibly enact China-style economic reforms, and begin to engage the outside world. 

“He’s very proactive, both politically and economically, and very outward-looking. He has given public speeches, which is different from his father. Every month, he brings some kind of surprise,” says Mr. Petrov. 

Though Kim's style may be different, the substance of North Korea’s leadership has remained the same. The past two months have seen some of the most aggressive rhetoric ever from North Korea, including a threat of a preemptive nuclear strike on the US, though the country is not believed to be technically capable of such an attack.

Kim's international antics are doing nothing to bring it closer to making progress in improving North Korea’s woeful economy. If Kim genuinely wants to make progress on its professed goals, Petrov says, the regime has to start looking inward.  

“It’s time for North Korea to focus on its domestic affairs, particularly on its goals of becoming a state with both strong defense and a strong economy,” says Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean studies in Seoul, South Korea.  

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