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The Obama administration, along with many humanitarian and human rights organizations, is calling for the immediate release of Kenneth Bae, an American citizen who was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for alleged actions that were deemed a threat to the North Korean government.
The sentencing of Bae, a 44-year-old tour operator based in Washington state, occurred after he was convicted Tuesday by North Korea's highest court, state news agency Korean Central News Agency reported in a brief dispatch Thursday.
"We urge the DPRK [North Korea] to grant Mr. Bae amnesty," a U.S. State Department spokesman said in a statement on Thursday.
The New York Times noted that Bae is a naturalized U.S. citizen born in South Korea, and was detained on Nov. 3 after escorting five European tourists through the North Korean city of Rajin.
It is not clear why authorities decided to stop Bae from leaving the country. However, South Korean newspaper Kookmin Ilbo reported that North Korean officers apparently found a computer hard disk in the travel agent's possessions that contained "delicate information" about the isolated Pacific nation.
"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 Citizens' Coalition for the Human Rights of North Korean Refugees in Seoul, South Korea, previously said in a statement.
But 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. He believes the the country could use Bae as leverage in the ongoing negotiations regarding North Korea's nuclear program.
"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.
North Korea has held a series of test in recent months which has put the region of edge as the country continues to showcase its military capabilities.