Korean American Tour Guide to Be Tried in N. Korea

Korean American tour guide Kenneth Bae faces the grim prospect of a death sentence after Pyongyang announced that he would be tried for trying to overthrow the government.

Bae, 44, had arrived in the N. Korean special economic zone of Rason in November leading a group of European tourists. He was detained at that time for “hostile acts” against the N. Korean regime though the other members of his group were allowed to continue on with their tour.

On Sunday N. Korea’s Central News Agency reported that Bae was being charged with trying to overthrow the government and that the charge would be proven at trial. Under the nation’s criminal code, the charge of attempting to overthrow the government carries the death penalty. The charge is far more severe than the charge originally mentioned in connection with Bae of committing acts showing “hostility” toward the government. N. Korean laws aren’t models of clarity or precision. Acts of hostility can include many seemingly innocent acts like taking an unauthorized photo. By the same token, taking of photos can also be interpreted as an effort at overthrowing the government. The charges against Bae are thought to stem from similar interpretations.

In 2009 US journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced to 12 years of prison labor for the charges of illegally crossing into N. Korea and showing hostility toward the government. They were released after a visit to Pyongyang by former president Bill Clinton.

No date was announced for Bae’s trial, but N. Korean criminal code provides for trial will be held within 25 days of the charge. Any sentence rendered after the trial is deemed to be final, with no right of appeal.

The State Department said it is “aware of reports that a U.S. citizen will face trial in North Korea.”

Because the US has no diplomatic relations with N. Korea, Bae was visited Friday by officials from the Swedish Embassy.

If history is any indication, Bae isn’t likely to get out of N. Korea without a visit by some high-level US diplomat or a former president. In January 2010 teacher Aijalon Gomes was released only after former president Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang. Gomes was allowed to fly out of N. Korea with Carter.

Pyongyang appears to be using Bae as a means to induce some form of high-level contact that might end the current tensions with a diplomatic concession, offer of aid or some other form of face-saving for the regime’s young leader Kim Jong-un.