NORTH Korea announced yesterday that an American detained for nearly six months is being tried in the supreme court on charges of plotting to overthrow the government, a crime that could result in the death penalty if he is convicted.
The case involving Kenneth Bae, who has been in North Korean custody since early November, further complicates already fraught relations between Pyongyang and Washington following weeks of heightened rhetoric and tensions.
The trial mirrors a situation in 2009, when the US and North Korea were locked in a standoff over Pyongyang’s decision to launch a long-range rocket and conduct an underground nuclear test.
At the time, North Korea had custody of two American journalists, whose eventual release after being sentenced to 12 years of hard labour paved the way for diplomatic progress following months of tensions.
Bae was arrested in Rason, a special economic zone in North Korea’s far north- eastern region bordering China and Russia, according to official state media. In North Korean dispatches, Bae, a Korean American, is called Pae Jun Ho, the North Korean spelling of his Korean name.
The exact nature of his alleged crimes has not been revealed, but North Korea accuses Bae, described as a tour operator, of seeking to overthrow North Korea’s leadership, headed by Kim Jong-un.
“In the process of investigation he admitted that he committed crimes aimed to topple the DPRK with hostility toward it,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency said yesterday.
DPRK is the acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. A date for a verdict from the austere supreme court in Pyongyang has not been given.
Friends and colleagues described Bae as a devout Christian from Washington state but based in the Chinese border city of Dalian who travelled frequently to North Korea to feed the country’s orphans.
At least three other Americans detained in recent years also have been devout Christians. While North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the regime.
Under North Korea’s criminal code, crimes against the state can carry life imprisonment or the death sentence.
In 2009, American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced to hard labour for trespassing and unspecified hostile acts after being arrested near the border with China and held for four months.
They were freed later that year after former president Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to negotiate their release in a visit that the then-leader Kim Jong-il treated as a diplomatic coup.
Including Ling and Lee, Bae is at least the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009. The others eventually were deported or released.
“For North Korea, Bae is a bargaining chip in dealing with the US,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, South Korea. The North will use him in a way that helps bring the US to talks.”
As in 2009, Pyongyang is locked in a standoff with the Obama administration over North Korea’s drive to build nuclear weapons. Washington has led the campaign to punish Pyongyang for launching a long-range missile in December and carrying out a nuclear test, its third, in February.
North Korea claims it needs to build atomic weapons to defend itself against the US, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea and over the past two months has been holding joint military drills with South Korea that have included nuclear-capable stealth bombers and fighter jets.
Diplomats from China, South Korea, the US, Japan and Russia have been conferring in recent weeks to try to find a way to rein in Pyongyang before a miscalculation in the region sparks real warfare.
South Korean defence officials said earlier in the month that North Korea had moved a medium-range missile designed to strike US territory to its east coast. The Korean Peninsula remains in a technical state of war because the three-year Korean conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953. Because Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic relations, the Swedish embassy in North Korea represents the US in legal matters.
Meanwhile, the last groups of South Korean managers began pulling out yesterday from a shuttered factory park in North Korea after their government ordered them to leave the border city, as Pyongyang issued a new threat to shut down the last symbol of detente.
The South Koreans stuffed their cars with as much as they could take from their factories in the North Korean city of Kaesong, located just on the other side of the demilitarized zone dividing the two countries. A total of 125 South Koreans left yesterday, and the last 50, including government employees who manage facilities, will leave tomorrow, the unification ministry said.
Once the last South Koreans leave, what will become of the jointly run factory park remains unclear.
“It is only a matter of time” before the complex shuts down for good, an unnamed spokesman for North Korea’s General Bureau for Central Guidance said. “We treasure the Kaesong industrial complex but won’t bestow favours on those who return evil for good.”
Until earlier this month, 53,000 North Korean workers were managed by 800 South Koreans at more than 120 South Korean-run factories in a special economic zone in Kaesong. The decade-old arrangement provided Kaesong with work and salaries, and the South Koreans with cheap labour.
But as tensions flared between Seoul and Pyongyang the North pulled its entire work force out on 9 April and banned South Koreans from crossing the border to bring food and supplies.
With factories suspending operations and food supplies dwindling, Seoul issued a Friday deadline for North Korea to agree to talks on Kaesong.
When the deadline was not met, Seoul announced the pullout of its citizens on grounds of safety.