North Korea announced today that US citizen Kenneth Bae had been sentenced to 15 years of “compulsory labour”.
The arrest of Bae — also known as Bae Jun Ho — was announced in December last year.
However, one big question remains — what did Bae actually do?
Officially, the charges against Bae certainly sound serious. When his trial was announced this weekend, North Korea’s official news agency reported that he “admitted that he committed crimes aimed to topple the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with hostility toward it.”
“I think there were two charges that had been levied upon this man,” Korean-American scholar Tony Namkung told NK News. “One, plotting to overthrow the North Korean regime, and two, plotting to kill the leadership – without specifying who.”
As pretty much no one in the world trusts the North Korean justice system, however, it remains unclear what Bae really did.
His back story offers few clues. The 44-year-old was born in South Korea but became a naturalized citizen of the U.S., settling in Washington state.
According to NK News, he ran a company that specialised in tours of North Korea. While the website for the company — NationTours.com— is now down, web hosting records suggest the website was registered in Los Angeles in late 2011. The website also had a Chinese phone number on it, suggesting a Sino-based operation.
Bae appears to have been on leading a tour when he was arrested in November. He was in the North Korean city of Rajin, part of a special economic zone near China.
There’s nothing unusual about being a tour operator in North Korea — there are a variety of companies offering tours in North Korea, the majority of which are run by foreign nationals like Bae.
However, the location of his arrest may be important. 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 (since closed) contains a link to one organisation in Ohio called the Joseph Connection.
If Bae was working in some capacity Christian missionary it may help explain his arrest. North Korea has taken a hard line on missionaries before, arresting U.S. citizen and Christian activist Robert Park in 2010. Eddie Jun Yong-su, who was arrested on for an unspecified crime later that year, was said to have been involved in Christian missionary work (Yong-su was released six months later).
Multiple reports in the South Korean press said Bae may have been carrying something on him that angered authorities. One possibility is that Bae had bibles or other religious items found on him at the border, though Korean-American scholar Tony Namkung — who has been personally involved in the case — denied this in his interview with NK News.
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.
Exactly what “sensitive information” is in this context is hard to gauge. There has also been speculation that Bae may have taken photos of starving children in North Korea (known locally as “kotjebi” — fluttering swallows), while 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.
Regardless of the reason for his arrest, many have speculated that North Korea will use it to force a high-profile visit from a U.S. official.
“North Korea is using Bae as bait to make such a visit happen. An American bigwig visiting Pyongyang would also burnish Kim Jong Un’s leadership profile,” Ahn Chan-il, head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies think tank told AFP today.
Bae does have some high-profile support already. Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and Google chairman visited North Korea in January and were denied the opportunity to visit Bae, though Richardson did get a letter to the prisoner.
High-level visits have certainly helped before. In 2009 American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced to 12 years of hard labour after crossing the border from China. The pair were later pardoned and released after a visit by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
In 2011, a visit by Jimmy Carter led to the pardon and release of American Aijalon Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labour. According to NK News, Carter has told staff he has no plans to visit North Korea at present.
The circumstances of this case, however, remain particularly murky. Adam Cathcart of SinoNK has an impressive analysis of one report from a well-connected pro-North Korea group in Europe. One curious element of the the report is the argument 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.
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