North Korean officials announced Saturday that detained American citizen Kenneth Bae will be tried before the country’s Supreme Court on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. If convicted, Bae could face the death penalty.
According to media accounts, including one from The Telegraph, Bae is thought to be a Christian missionary linked with an Ohio organization called The Joseph Connection, although all references to his faith connections appear to have been removed recently from the Internet.
North Korea is known for its brutality toward Christian missionaries. Evangelism in the country is a serious crime.
The case against Bae, who has been in North Korean custody since early November, only fuels the already fraught relations between Pyongyang and Washington. Some analysts believe the country’s leaders will using Bae for political leverage. The U.S. has sent high-profile individuals to North Korea in the past to appeal for the release of its citizens. North Korea has detained six Americans since 2009.
That’s part of the reason former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt flew to the communist country in January, according to Reuters, although Richardson said they were unable to meet Bae at the time. He said North Korean officials assured him during the trip of Bae’s good health.
Officials arrested Bae in Rason, a zone which borders China and Russia, according to official state media. In North Korean dispatches, Bae, a Korean American, is called Pae Jun Ho, the North Korean spelling of his Korean name.
The exact nature of his alleged crimes has not been revealed, but North Korea accuses Bae, described as a tour operator, of seeking to overthrow the country’s leadership.
"In the process of investigation he admitted that he committed crimes aimed to topple the DPRK with hostility toward it," the state-run Korean Central News Agency said Saturday. "His crimes were proved by evidence. He will soon be taken to the Supreme Court of the DPRK to face judgment."
DPRK is the acronym for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. No timing for the verdict issued at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang was given.
The U.S. government is "aware of reports that a U.S. citizen will face trial in North Korea," according to U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who said officials from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang had visited Bae on Friday. Psaki said she had no other information to share at this time.
Because Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic relations, the Swedish Embassy in North Korea represents the United States in legal proceedings there.
According to friends and colleagues, Bae is a devout Christian from Washington state, based in the Chinese border city of Dalian, who traveled frequently to North Korea to feed the country's orphans.
At least three other Americans detained in recent years also have been devout Christians. While North Korea's constitution assures freedom of religion, in practice the government only allows sanctioned services.
Under North Korea's criminal code, crimes against the state can draw life imprisonment or the death sentence.
In 2009, North Korea sentenced American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee to hard labor for trespassing and unspecified hostile acts after being arrested near the border with China and held for four months.
The government handed over the women later that year to former President Bill Clinton, who flew to Pyongyang to negotiate their release. Then-leader Kim Jong Il treated Clinton’s visit as a political triumph.