North Korea, having alienated most of the rest of the world with its military-flavored belligerence, sentenced an American to 15 years of hard labor as punishment for what has been described as his attempt to overthrow its government.
North Korean officials said the sentence for Kenneth Bae, a tour operator from Washington state, was handed down by its Supreme Court last Tuesday.
Washington has been stymied in its search for a plausible path to dealing with the government of North Korea and its threat to launch nuclear missiles at American targets. Bae’s bizarre sentence only compounds the problem.
Bae was arrested in November while traveling with a small group in what the North Korean government had designated a “special economic zone.” Although few specifics have been cited by the government, there has been speculation that he may have been found with pictures of hungry children.
On Facebook, Euna Lee, a journalist who was detained by the North in 2009, posted this week that Bae “guided a tour group to North Korea and was stopped by the authorities for some files on his computer hard drive that he wasn’t aware of.”
Given North Korea’s behavior in the past, it is possible that the absurdly stiff sentence (and the accusation that he sought to overthrow the government) may be calculated to persuade the United States to be more conciliatory to the Pyongyang regime. For example, in similar situations in the past, former American presidents have been sent to North Korea, enabling the Pyongyang government to boast of its importance.
If Washington rejects such a plan, Bae’s future would be a grim one.
What a strange, mysterious place North Korea is. Its people are denied access to news of the outside world and fed a steady diet of nationalist propaganda designed to portray the United States, especially, as a constant and evil threat to their lives.
A few North Koreans know their government is scheming against them. A British newspaper reported last week that North Koreans who live near the borders with China or South Korea secretly listen to foreign radio and television broadcasts to find out what’s really going on.
“Foreign radio is essentially the only real-time source of sensitive outside news and information available in North Korea and even entertainment media, such as South Korean DVDs, can offer North Koreans a fascinating glimpse of life in the South and a much-needed escape from their own hardships,” Nathaniel Kretchun, a student of North Korean culture, told the press.
Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders rate North Korea’s as the world’s least free media. Television sets and radios are rigged to receive only state broadcasts, then sealed. Those caught listening to foreign media are likely to face forced labor, and few people have Internet access.
And the world is supposed to believe that Kenneth Bae, a mere tour guide, was working to topple the North Korean government?
Perhaps Bae’s best hope right now is that his sentence will persuade Washington — with all due reluctance — to acknowledge some of North Korea’s concerns. But giving any encouragement to its government antics is unlikely to stop its bullying behavior. How much better it would be if that government would simply take care of its own people.