|Korean-American tour operator Kenneth Bae (Yonhap News)|
This file photo shows Kenneth Bae, right, and Bobby Lee together when they were freshmen students at the University of Oregon in 1988. (AP-Yonhap News)
North Korea said Thursday it has sentenced an American citizen to 15 years of hard labor, its toughest penalty ever for a foreigner, for crimes against the state.
Observers said the verdict could pave the way for the resumption of dialogue with the U.S., with Pyongyang using the detainee as a bargaining chip.
Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour operator, was arrested in November in Rason, a special economic zone near the Chinese border. Little information has been disclosed about his charges.
His trial took place in the Supreme Court on Tuesday, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said.
The sentencing came as Seoul, Washington and Beijing are stepping up diplomatic efforts to resolve tension heightened by the North’s missile and nuclear test and continued threats in response to new U.N. sanctions and South Korea-U.S. military drills.
The punishment is the harshest ever to be imposed on a foreign citizen, which analysts say indicates Pyongyang’s keenness -- or desperation -- to restart negotiations with Washington.
Hard labor is usually given for felonies such as murder, rape and robbery or serious economic offenses including fraud and embezzlement.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has reportedly expressed his willingness to travel to Pyongyang in a recent letter to Secretary of State John Kerry.
Bae is at least the sixth American imprisoned in North Korea since 2009. Previous prisoners were eventually released after visits by high-profile figures including Carter and former President Bill Clinton.
Negotiations for their freedom often set the stage for breaking the stalemate between the two countries.
Carter has been there at least three times since 1994. In 2010 he took home Aijalon Mahli Gomes who was sentenced to eight years of hard labor for illegally entering the country.
After a long-range rocket launch and nuclear test in 2009, the North let go two journalists who were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for sneaking across the border from China when Clinton came and met with then-leader Kim Jong-il.
In January, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson unsuccessfully attempted to discuss Bae’s release during his trip to Pyongyang with Google Inc. executive chairman Eric Schmidt.
The U.S. has no formal diplomatic relations with the North and has been working toward Bae’s freedom through the Swedish Embassy as its protecting power.
His exact charges remain unclear. Kun “Tony” Namkung, a North Korea expert who arranged Richardson’s visit, told The Korea Herald upon his return that Bae was accused of “serious crimes including plotting to overthrow the regime and assassinating the leadership.”
Some reports said that one of his tour group members was found to be carrying a computer hard disk apparently containing “sensitive information” about the reclusive country.
Other sources said he was a devout Christian and engaged in missionary work there or had fed and taken pictures of North Korean orphans.
The State Department said last week it was trying to find out more about the charges and provide him with the best possible access to legal defense.
“We are in close coordination with representatives at the Embassy of Sweden, and we understand they were last able to visit this U.S. citizen on Friday,” spokesman Patrick Ventrell told a media briefing, urging Bae’s immediate release “on humanitarian grounds.”
By Shin Hyon-hee (email@example.com)