North Korea to put American Kenneth Bae on trial
Published 27/04/2013 | 13:33
North Korea has announced the trial of an American citizen who was mysteriously arrested six months ago while leading a tour group into the country.
The announcement focused attention back on Pyongyang after a near two-week lull in North Korea's sabre-rattling rhetoric.
Kenneth Bae (Pae Jun-ho), a 44-year-old ethnic Korean with US citizenship, was arrested last November as he accompanied five Europeans into the Rason Special Economic Zone, a pilot region on the border of China and Russia which is open to foreign companies.
Since then, almost nothing has been heard of him. In January, Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, and Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google, travelled to North Korea to try to secure his release but were not allowed to see him.
Mr Bae's crime is not clear. However, the Korean Central News Agency announced on Saturday that a "preliminary inquiry" had been completed and that Mr Bae had "admitted that he committed crimes aimed to topple the Democratic People's Republic of Korea with hostility toward it".
"His crimes were proved by evidence," it added.
The maximum punishment for such a charge is the death penalty and North Korean officials have already suggested that Mr Bae faces harsh punishment and possibly execution.
It is not clear when the trial will be held. Under North Korea's criminal code, prosecutors are required to file a formal charge within ten days of the completion of their investigation. Mr Bae's case will be heard directly by the Supreme Court.
Mr Bae, who is believed to have lived in China, ran a travel agency called Nation Tours and had visited North Korea several times before without incident, according to Do Hee-youn, who heads the Citizens Coalition for the Human Rights of North Korean Refugees, based in Seoul. The website for Nation Tours has now been taken down.
His father is reported to live in South Korea while his mother lives in Lynnwood, Washington State. His family has declined to comment for fear of exacerbating Mr Bae's situation.
Mr Richardson, on his trip to North Korea, handed officials a letter from Mr Bae's son to give to him.
The US, which has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, has conducted negotiations for Mr Bae's release through the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang.
Some analysts have suggested that Mr Bae is being used by North Korea as a bargaining chip. In the past, the US has sent high-profile figures to North Korea to plead for the release of its citizens. Six Americans have been detained by North Korea since 2009.
In 2009, Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to win the release of two American journalists who were arrested on the North Korean border, a moment that is enshrined in North Korean propaganda as the humbling of its historic enemy.
However, on Monday, Robert King, the US special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, said the North has not made any request for an envoy to negotiate Mr Bae's release.
The circumstances of Mr Bae's arrest are unclear, but Do Hee-youn told the New York Times that Mr Bae may have taken photographs of orphans begging for food in the markets of Rason.
"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," he said. However, taking photographs has never before led to the arrest of a foreign visitor to North Korea.
According to the South Korean media, North Korean officials reportedly found a hard disk which contained sensitive information about North Korea.
Mr Bae is thought to be a Christian and his Facebook page links to an organisation in Ohio called the Joseph Connection. It describes itself as "a Christ centered, humanitarian outreach to the Least of the Least world-wide. The Joseph Connection organizes short term trips into closed or restricted countries to touch the average person."
Christian missionaries have been severely persecuted in North Korea and proselytising is an extreme crime.