North Korea sentences U.S. citizen to 15 years of hard labor

Thursday, May 2, 2013 - 10:25am

SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- A North Korean court has sentenced a U.S. citizen to 15 years of hard labor, saying he committed "hostile acts" against the secretive state.

The country's Supreme Court delivered the sentence against Pae Jun Ho, known as Kenneth Bae by U.S. authorities, on Tuesday, the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Thursday.

The KCNA article said Bae a Korean-American, was arrested November 3 after arriving as a tourist in Rason City, a port in the northeastern corner of North Korea. It didn't provide any details about the "hostile acts" he is alleged to have committed.

Following the sentence, his case could get caught up in the tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, which spiked recently after the North carried out its latest underground nuclear test in February and as the United States and South Korea held joint military drills in the region.

The intensity of the menacing rhetoric from North Korea appears to have subsided recently, and the U.S.-South Korean drills finished this week, removing one source of friction. But Kim Jong Un's regime, which has demanded that North Korea be recognized as a nuclear power, remains unpredictable.

The United States has seen the reports of Bae's sentencing, a State Department official said, and is working to confirm them through the Swedish Embassy.

The Swedes represent U.S. interests in North Korea because Washington has no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

The State Department had appealed Monday for the release of Bae on humanitarian grounds. Swedish diplomats were able to visit Bae last week, it said.

But U.S. officials have struggled to establish how exactly Bae fell foul of North Korea authorities.

"This was somebody who was a tour operator, who has been there in the past and has a visa to go to the North," a senior U.S. official told CNN on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue.

Some Americans have previously crossed the border without a visa, either knowingly or by mistake.

In 2009, two American journalists reporting from the border between North Korea and China were arrested and received heavy prison sentences. They were released later that year after former President Bill Clinton flew to North Korea and met with top officials there.

But a visit to Pyongyang in January by a delegation led by Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt didn't appear to make any breakthrough in Bae's case.

The State Department had objected to the delegation's trip, saying it was ill-timed. The visit took place about a month after North Korea had launched a long-range rocket that put an object in orbit and prompted condemnation from the international community.

North Korea is considered to have one of the most repressive penal systems in the world. Human rights groups estimate that as many as 200,000 people are being held in a network of prison camps that the regime is believed to use to crush political dissent.

The United Nations Human Rights Council said in March that it would set up a commission of inquiry to examine what it called "grave, widespread and systematic" violations of human rights in North Korea.

North Korea reacted with indignation to the move, saying it had "one of the best systems for promotion and protection of human rights in the world."

-- CNN's K.J. Kwon reported from Seoul, and Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong. CNN's Jamie Crawford in Washington and Greg Botelho in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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