BEIJING – North Korea on Sunday denied it would use a jailed Korean American as a political bargaining chip, saying it had no plans to invite a prominent American to Pyongyang to seek the release of Kenneth Bae.
Bae, 44, of Lynwood, Wash., was sentenced last week to 15 years of hard labor by the country’s highest court for committing “hostile acts” toward the government.
Pyongyang has not specified the crimes but said Sunday that Bae entered North Korea with a “disguised identity” and had confessed to the offenses.
“A variety of his belongings also confirmed his crimes for which he was convicted,” the official Korean Central News Agency said, attributing the statement to an unidentified foreign ministry spokesman.
The U.S. has called for North Korea to immediately release Bae. Tensions between the two countries have been high amid Pyongyang’s repeated missile tests and threats of nuclear attacks against the U.S. and its allies, although the rhetoric has quieted somewhat in recent days.
Bae, who operated a tour business out of northeast China, was arrested in November in Rason City, a special economic zone bordering China and Russia.
Bae's friends have described him as a devout Christian who traveled frequently to North Korea and had a particular interest in helping the country's orphans.
In recent years, North Korea has held six U.S. citizens. The most well known case came in 2009, when former President Clinton flew to Pyongyang to secure the release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor after crossing into North Korea while making a television documentary. A year later, another American, Aijalon Gomes, a teacher and missionary, was released after a visit by former President Carter.
Such intercessions in the past have prompted speculation that North Korea would use the latest case for political leverage. But Pyongyang called such thinking “ridiculous and wrong.”
Rather, the foreign ministry spokesman said, it was out of “generosity” and a “humanitarian point of view” that the other detained Americans were freed after prominent U.S. representatives “apologized for their crimes and promised to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents.”