(AP) – North Korea said Saturday it will soon put a detained American on trial for allegedly trying to overthrow the government, further complicating already fraught relations between Pyongyang and Washington.
The indictment of Kenneth Bae comes in the middle of a lull after weeks of war threats and other provocative acts by North Korea against the U.S. and South Korea. It has expressed rage over U.N. sanctions over a February nuclear test and ongoing U.S.-South Korean military drills, though analysts say Pyongyang’s motive is to get its Korean War foes to negotiate on its own terms.
“For North Korea, Bae is a bargaining chip in dealing with the U.S. The North will use him in a way that helps bring the U.S. to talks when the mood slowly turns toward dialogue,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean Studies at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
Bae, identified in North Korean state media by his Korean name, Pae Jun Ho, is a tour operator of Korean descent who was arrested after arriving with a tour on Nov. 3 in Rason, a special economic zone bordering China and Russia.
He is the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009. The other Americans were eventually deported or released after high-profile diplomatic interventions, including some involving former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
“The preliminary inquiry into crimes committed by American citizen Pae Jun Ho closed,” the official Korean Central News Agency said in a brief report. “In the process of investigation he admitted that he committed crimes aimed to topple the DPRK with hostility toward it. His crimes were proved by evidence.”
DPRK is the acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Under North Korea’s criminal code, terrorist acts include murdering, kidnapping and injuring the country’s citizens can lead to a death sentence or life in jail.
North Korea and the United States fought the 1950-53 Korean War and still don’t have diplomatic relations. The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang represents the United States.
KCNA didn’t say when Bae’s trial will take place or what the charges were.
North Korea’s state media and the U.S. government have made little information about Bae public.
But his friends, colleagues and South Korean activists specializing in North Korea affairs said Bae is a Christian missionary based in a Chinese border town who frequently made trips to North Korea to feed orphans there. It is not known whether he tried to evangelize while in North Korea.
Officially, North Korea guarantees freedom of religion. In practice, authorities crack down on Christians, who are seen as Western-influenced threats to the government. The distribution of Bibles and secret prayer services can mean banishment to a labor camp or execution, defectors from the country have said.
In 2009, American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for trespassing and unspecified hostile acts. They were freed later that year after former President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang to negotiate their release.
Meanwhile, South Korea is pulling its citizens from a joint factory park in North Korea after Pyongyang rejected Seoul’s demand for talks on the inter-Korean symbol of detente on Saturday. The park was shuttered earlier this month after the North pulled its workers out of it, objecting to views in South Korea that the complex is a source of badly needed hard currency for Pyongyang.