On April 30, the North Korean Supreme Court sentenced U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae to 15 years of hard labor. Bae was arrested in November 2012 after entering North Korea as a tourist and indicted for committing “hostile acts.” Initially, he was accused of trying to overthrow the Pyongyang government, a crime that could result in punishment as severe as the death penalty. Though Bae’s sentencing is less grave than what could have been, his punishment is still unjust and he should be released on humanitarian grounds.
Firstly, the North Korean legal system did not grant due process. When U.S. diplomatic presence is absent in North Korea, representatives from the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang are to step in. However, Swedish representatives were not at Bae’s trial, rendering the charge unfair.
Furthermore, Bae’s punishment is simply a political move to initiate talks between the U.S. and the DPRK. When American citizens have been detained in the past, former presidents have flown to Pyongyang to negotiate their release. In 2009, Bill Clinton met with Kim Jong-il to free journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee. In 2010, Jimmy Carter went to North Korea to secure the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes. In both cases, North Korea used the former presidents as messengers to the U.S. This puts President Obama in a tough situation—should he send a former president or high-ranking official to Pyongyang to free an American citizen? Or should he refuse to play North Korea’s game? It is true that all nations employ political strategies to shift conditions in their favor. But the fact that Bae will be subject to harsh labor and possible torture under this ploy makes this political gimmick inhumane.
It could be argued that this hostage case is different from the ones in 2009 and 2010, as North Korea has rejected the conditional proposal for talks with U.S. But regardless of North Korea’s intentions, Bae was unfairly convicted and should therefore be released.