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Asia Today ISSN 1861-4604 Tuesday, August 14, 2018

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Pyongyang sentences US man to 15 years for taking snaps

Pae Jun-Ho, known in the United States as Kenneth Bae

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PYONGYANG - North Korea has sentenced a US man to 15 years of prison labour for taking pictures of starving children in that country, a development that could strain their already fraught ties.

Pae Jun-Ho, known in the United States as Kenneth Bae, was arrested in November as he entered the northeastern port city of Rason. He has been accused of trying to "topple the DPRK" (North Korea).

"The Supreme Court sentenced him to 15 years of compulsory labour for this crime," the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced.

Pyongyang has not specified the basis of the offences allegedly committed by Bae, a Korean-American tour operator. But KCNA said on Saturday when announcing his trial that he had admitted to his crimes.

Bae, 44, has already been in jail for six months after being arrested as he fed the orphans in Rason near the borders with China and Russia.

The United States plans to call on North Korea Friday to grant an amnesty to Bae, officials said Thursday night.

Bae is at least the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009. The others were eventually deported or released without serving out their terms, some after trips to Pyongyang by prominent Americans, including former presidents.

Analysts say Bae's sentencing could be an effort by Pyongyang to win diplomatic concessions in the ongoing standoff over its nuclear program.

State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Thursday the U.S. was still seeking to learn the facts of the case. He said the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which handles consular matters there for the U.S., did not attend Tuesday's trial.

Bae was born in South Korea but is a naturalized American citizen and attended the University of Oregon. According to U.S. media, he most recently lived in the Seattle suburb of Lynnwood.

A North Korean defector said Bae will likely serve his sentence in a special facility for foreigners, not in one of the repressive state's forced labor camps. More than 200,000 people are incarcerated in these camps, beaten and starved, sometimes to death, according to human rights bodies, Reuters said.

His sentencing comes after two months of sabre-rattling by Pyongyang that saw North Korea threaten both the United States and South Korea with nuclear war.

According to human rights activists in South Korea, who say he may have been arrested for taking pictures of starving children, known as "kotjebi" or fluttering swallows, Bae was part of a group of five tourists who visited the northeastern North Korean city of Rajin in November and has been held since then.

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 north-east North Korea, said Reuters.

"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 Seoul-based think-tank.

Bae's sentence was heftier than the 12 years handed down to two U.S. journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, in 2009. It took a visit to Pyongyang by former President Bill Clinton to secure their release.

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