NORTH Korea’s supreme court yesterday sentenced a 24-year-old American man to six years of hard labour for entering the country illegally to commit espionage.
At a trial that lasted about 90 minutes, the court said Matthew Miller, of Bakersfield, California, tore up his tourist visa at Pyongyang’s airport upon arrival on 10 April and admitted to having the “wild ambition” of experiencing prison life so that he could secretly investigate North Korea’s human rights situation.
Miller, who looked thin and pale at the trial and was dressed completely in black, is one of three Americans now being held in North Korea.
Showing no emotion throughout the proceedings, Miller waived the right to a lawyer and was handcuffed before being led from the courtroom after his sentencing. The court, comprising a chief judge flanked by two “people’s assessors,” ruled it would not hear any appeals as to its decision.
Earlier, it had been believed that Miller had sought asylum when he entered North Korea. During the trial, however, the prosecution argued that was a ruse and that Miller also falsely claimed to have secret information about the US military in South Korea on his iPad and iPod.
Miller was charged under Article 64 of the North Korean criminal code, which relates to espionage and can carry a sentence of five to ten years, though harsher punishments can be given for more serious cases.
A trial is expected soon for one of the other Americans being held, Jeffrey Fowle, who entered the North as a tourist but was arrested in May for leaving a Bible at a sailors’ club in the city of Chongjin.
The third American, Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, is serving out a 15-year sentence for alleged “hostile acts.”
All three have appealed to the US government to send a senior statesman to Pyongyang to intervene on their behalf.
During a brief interview in Pyongyang last week, Miller said he had written a letter to President Barack Obama but had not received a reply.
Fowle, a 56-year-old equipment operator from Ohio, said his wife, a hairstylist from Russia, made a written appeal on his behalf to Russian president Vladimir Putin. He said the Russian government responded that it was watching the situation.
The US has repeatedly offered to send its envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, to Pyongyang to seek the freedom of the detainees, but without success.
Former president Bill Clinton visited in 2009 to free two jailed journalists. Jimmy Carter made the trip in 2010 to secure the release of Aijalon Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years hard labour for illegally crossing into the country to do missionary work.
In 2011, the State Department’s envoy for North Korean human rights managed to successfully intervene in the case of Korean-American businessman Eddie Yong Su Jun.
The US has no diplomatic relations with North Korea and strongly warns its citizens against travelling to the country.
Uri Tours, a New Jersey-based travel agency specialising in North Korea tourism that handled the arrangements for Miller, said in an email yesterday that it was working to have Miller returned to his parents in the US.
“Although we ask a series of tailored questions on our application form designed to get to know a traveller and his/her interests, it’s not always possible for us to foresee how a tourist may behave during a DPRK tour,” the travel agency said.