Former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson, who has made numerous trips to North Korea that included efforts to free detained Americans, said Bae’s case should not become entangled in the current U.S.-North Korea impasse.
“Now that the sentencing and the North Korean legal process has been completed, it is important that negotiations begin to secure Kenneth Bae’s release on humanitarian grounds or a general amnesty,” said Richardson, who visited North Korea in January with Google Inc CEO Eric Schmidt.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said any negotiations with North Korea are “dependent upon the North Koreans demonstrating a willingness to live up to their international obligations.”
North Korea is the subject of U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for an end to its nuclear and missile tests, as well as punitive U.N. sanctions.
Some media reports have identified Bae as the leader of the tour group. NK News, a specialist North Korea news website, said he was the owner of a company called Nation Tours that specialized in tours of northeastern North Korea.
The reports could not be verified and North Korean state news agency KCNA did not list any specific charge other than crimes against the state, and used a Korean rendering of Bae’s name, Pae Jun-ho, when it reported the Supreme Court ruling.
“North Korea has shown their intention to use him as a negotiating card as they have done in the past,” said Cheong Seong-chang, senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a think-tank in Seoul.
North Korea appears to use the release of high-profile American prisoners to extract a form of personal tribute, rather than for economic or diplomatic gain, often portraying visiting dignitaries as paying homage.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who has traveled to North Korea before to try to free a detained American, has no plans to do so for Bae, Carter’s spokeswoman said.
According to North Korean law, the punishment for hostile acts against the state is between five and 10 years hard labor.
“I think his sentencing was hefty. North Korea seemed to consider his acts more severe,” said Jang Myung-bong, honorary professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and a North Korea law expert.
North Korea is one of the most isolated states on earth. Its official policy of “Juche,” or self-reliance, is a fusion of Marxism, extreme nationalism and self sufficiency centered on the cult of the ruling Kim family.
It was not known if Bae had been taken immediately to jail.
He likely will not be incarcerated in one of the North’s notorious slave labor camps, such as the one where defector Kwon Hyo-jin was locked up. There, Kwon said, prisoners were worked to death and often survived only by eating rats and snakes.
“If an American served jail together with North Korean inmates, which won’t happen, he could tell them about capitalism or economic developments. That would be the biggest mistake for North Korea,” said Kwon, a North Korean sentenced to one of its camps for seven years until 2007. He defected to South Korea in 2009.
“(Bae) would be sent to a correctional facility that only houses foreigners and was set up as a model for international human rights groups.”
Lee, then a journalist for Current TV, said her 12-year sentence included two years for illegal border crossing and 10 for the “hostile act” of making a documentary on North Koreans who risk their lives fleeing their country for nearby China.
“I do not think Mr. Bae would be physically mistreated at this point, especially if North Korea plans to talk to the U.S.,” she said. “In my case, they wanted to show I was wrong about reporting their human rights issues and wanted to give me the impression that they look after their prisoners in a humanitarian way.”
Bae was given counsel by the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang as the United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea. The embassy has declined to comment on the case and Ventrell said the Swedes did not attend Bae’s trial.
(Additional reporting by Christine Kim in Seoul, Matt Spetalnick and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, and Laura L. Myers in Seattle; Editing by Alistair Bell and David Brunnstrom)