Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American who has been in a North Korean prison for more than six months, was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for "hostile acts" that were seen as an attempt to overthrow the government, North Korean media said Thursday.
Reports indicate that Bae, who ran a travel agency named Nation Tours, had lived in China and had previously visited North Korea without any trouble. KomoNews.com reported last year that Bae, identified by North Korea's official news agency, the KCNA, by his ethnic name Pae Jun Ho.
Bae and the group were arrested on Nov. 3, 2012, while in the northeastern city of Rajin.
Ahn Chan-il, head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies in South Korea, addressed another angle to this development regarding the image of North Korea's young leader.
"North Korea is using Bae as bait … an American bigwig visiting Pyongyang would also burnish Kim Jong Un's leadership profile," Ahn told the Associated Press. Kim took power after his father, Kim Jong-il, died in December 2011.
South Korean newspaper Kookmin Ilbo revealed that North Korean officers previously found a computer hard disk in the travel agent's possessions that contained "delicate information" about the isolated country.
"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," Do Hee-youn of the Citizen's Coalition said at the time.
Bae's Facebook page links to the Joseph Connection, "a Christ centered, humanitarian outreach to the Least of the Least world-wide" located in Ohio. The organization is said to arrange brief trips into restricted countries "to touch the average person."
Observers claim it is no coincidence that North Korea has come forward now with information on Bae's case, as the communist regime was sanctioned by the U.N. for a nuclear test conducted in February. Having paused for the past few weeks on making threats to annihilate the U.S. and South Korea, who have conducted joint drills along the Korean Peninsula; some experts believe Bae is being used for leverage.