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A passerby at the Seoul Railway Station stopped to watch a news report on TV about Korean-American Kenneth Bae.

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N. Korea's sentencing of American puts U.S. in bind

  • Article by: CHOE SANG-HUN
  • New York Times
  • May 2, 2013 - 6:57 PM

– By sentencing a U.S. citizen to 15 years of hard labor this week for hostile acts against North Korea’s government, it is forcing the United States to choose between two equally distasteful options, analysts said Thursday.

The United States, as it did twice before when Americans were held hostage by North Korea, could send a former president to win the release of the American, Kenneth Bae, who was convicted and sentenced Tuesday in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. Then, North Korea, as it did before, could advertise such a high-profile visit as a U.S. capitulation before its new young leader, Kim Jong Un, who is craving a chance to burnish his profile as a tough anti-American strategist.

Or the United States, as its leaders have repeatedly vowed, could try to break North Korea’s habit of blackmailing its adversaries by ignoring its latest pressure tactic — and see one of its citizens languish in one of North Korea’s infamous prison camps, where the State Department says starvation and forced labor are rampant. Under North Korean law, Bae should be transferred to a labor camp within 10 days of the ruling.

The sentencing came at a time of high tension between North Korea and the United States, and it was issued the same day that joint U.S.-South Korean military drills ended. North Korea had said the military exercises were being used to prepare for an invasion. With the end of the drills, analysts have said, North Korea might tone down its bellicosity and shift its focus toward drawing the United States back to the negotiating table — using, among other things, the plight of Bae as bait.

“The timing of the sentencing makes us think that the North is again playing its old card,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea specialist at Dongguk University in Seoul. “But will the Americans play the same game?”

Bae, 44, a Korean-American from Washington state who ran a tour business out of China, was arrested in the special economic zone of Rason in northeastern North Korea in November after leading a group of businessmen there from Yanji, China. South Korean human rights advocates have said that Bae not only ran tours to North Korea but also was interested in helping orphans there. They said security officials in North Korea may have been offended by pictures of orphans that Bae had taken and stored in his computer.

North Korea had said Saturday that it was indicting him on charges that he tried to overthrow North Korea’s government, a crime that called for a punishment as severe as death. But Thursday, it said that its Supreme Court convicted him of “hostile acts,” a charge less grave than the original charge.

© 2014 Star Tribune