An American detained for nearly six months in North Korea has been sentenced to 15 years of “compulsory labour” for unspecified crimes against the state.
The sentencing of Kenneth Bae, described by friends as a devout Christian and a tour operator, will further strain relations between Pyongyang and Washington as the countries pursue tentative diplomacy following weeks of threats from North Korea.
Pyongyang’s official state media said today that Mr Bae’s trial took place on Tuesday, but provided few new details.
He was tried in the country’s Supreme Court on charges of plotting to overthrow the government, and could have faced the death penalty.
“The Supreme Court sentenced him to 15 years of compulsory labour for this crime,” the Korean Central News Agency said.
The exact nature of his alleged crimes has not been revealed.
Mr Bae was arrested in early November in Rason, a special economic zone in North Korea’s far north-eastern region bordering China and Russia, North Korea said.
The trial mirrors a similar situation in 2009, when the US and North Korea were locked in a stand-off over Pyongyang’s decision to launch a long-range rocket and conduct an underground nuclear test.
At the time, North Korea had detained two American journalists, whose eventual release after being sentenced to 12 years of hard labour paved the way for diplomacy following months of tension.
In North Korean dispatches, Mr Bae, a Korean American from Washington state, is called Pae Jun Ho, the North Korean spelling of his name.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said last week that officials from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang had visited Mr Bae on Friday.
Because Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic relations, the Swedish Embassy in North Korea represents the US in legal proceedings.
Friends and colleagues said Mr Bae was based in the Chinese border city of Dalian and travelled frequently to North Korea to feed the country’s orphans.
At least three other Americans detained in recent years have also been devout Christians. While North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the regime.
Mr Bae is at least the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009 – the others were eventually deported or released.