This weekend, North Korean media reported that Kenneth Bae, a U.S. citizen of Korean descent, would face trial in the country after he “admitted that he committed crimes aimed to topple the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with hostility toward it.”
The maximum punishment for this charge could be the death penalty, according to Malcolm Moore of the Telegraph.
It remains unclear what Bae did to incur the wrath of the North Korean government.
The 44-year-old Washington native was arrested last November while travelling with four other tourists in the northeastern city of Rajin. Bae was the owner of “Nation Tours,” a group that organised tours to the area, according to NK News. (The website for the group is now down, but web hosting records suggest the website was registered in Los Angeles in late 2011.)
The location of Bae’s arrest may be significant. Rajin is across the border from the Chinese city of Yanji, where many Christian groups shelter North Korean refugees. CNN has reported that Bae was a member of a protestant religious movement, and his Facebook page contains a link to one organisation in Ohio called the Joseph Connection.
North Korea has taken a hard line on missionaries before, arresting U.S. citizen and Christian activist Robert Park in 2010. Park was released after just two months, however, which suggests there could be something different about Bae’s case.
Some reports suggest that Bae was carrying something with him. Last year South Korean newspaper Kookmin Ilbo reported that Bae, or possibly a tourist he was escorting, was carrying a hard disk containing sensitive information about North Korea.
Do Hee-youn, head of the Citizens’ Coalition for the Human Rights of North Korean Refugees, told the New York Times that Bae may have had photographs of orphan begging in Rajin.
“The most plausible scenario I can think of is that he took some pictures of the orphans, and the North Korean authorities considered that an act of anti-North Korean propaganda,” Do said last year.
Reuters cites an unnamed “South Korean newspaper published by an evangelical family” that says Bae may have been arrested after photographing executions of dissenters and dissidents.
A common analysis is that Bae may be used as a bargaining chip by North Korea to re-open dialogue with the U.S.
For example, North Korean analyst Cheong Seong-chang told the Associated Press in December that the arrest was probably related to the recent launch of the Unha -3 rocket.
But the truth may be more complicated. Adam Cathcart of SinoNK has an impressive analysis of one report from a well-connected pro-North Korea group in Europe which suggests that the timing of the arrest was not related to any missile launch.
Additionally, the report argues that the U.S. has been uncharacteristically quiet in the case, waiting until North Korean media announced the arrest on December 21 to make any public statement. The report interprets this silence to suggest that America is not fully “comfortable” with the circumstances with the case.
For now, Bae is presumably languishing in jail. As the U.S. has no formal diplomatic ties with North Korea, Sweden is said to be working to get Bae released.
U.S. citizens arrested in North Korea have previously been found guilty, then pardoned by the North Korean leader after an intervention by a high profile American, such as Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.
In January, former New Mexico Governer Bill Richardson — who helped secure the release of a DPRK prisoner in 1996 —and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt traveled to Pyongyang and reportedly “expressed concern” at Bae’s arrest. However, Richardson and Schmidt were not given the opportunity to meet Bae, according to Reuters.
Richardson, like Bae’s family, is being tight-lipped about the case.
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