North Korea has sentenced an American citizen -- reportedly arrested while taking pictures of orphans -- to 15 years of "compulsory labor" for plotting to overthrow the government, the official North Korean news agency said.
Kenneth Bae, 44, has been detained in North Korea since last November in Rason, a special economic zone in North Korea's northeastern border with China and Russia. The state media, KCNA, did not specify details of the Supreme Court's sentence which said, "In the process of investigation he admitted that he committed crimes aimed to topple the DPRK with hostility toward it."
Bae runs "Nation Tours," specializing in trips to North Korea. He had reportedly entered North Korea for a five-day trip with foreign tourists and was caught taking pictures of street orphans, according to a South Korean interest group Citizen's Coalition. Bae is known to be a devout Christian and South Korean media speculated that he may have been involved in religious activities.
North Korea may try to use Bae as a bargaining chip to force concessions from the United States, analysts said.
Relations have become increasingly tense between the two countries after Pyongyang launched a long-range missile last December, followed by a nuclear test in February. North Korea has bombarded the United States and South Korea with harsh rhetoric and threats of nuclear war throughout March and April, protesting against the annual joint military exercises in South Korea and the latest U.N. sanctions aimed at curbing North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
In January Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico, and the Google chief executive, Eric Schmidt, attempted to secure Bae's release during a visit to North Korea but they were not allowed to meet him.
Last week the U.S. State Department called for Bae's immediate release and said it was working on his case with the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which looks after U.S. interests in the North.
There were several arrests of U.S. citizens in recent years. In 2010, a Korean-American Christian activist Robert Park was released after entering North Korea in 2009 to draw international attention to human rights abuses. Another Christian fundamentalist, Aijalon Mahli Gomes, was arrested and sentenced to eight years of hard labor, but was freed after former U.S. president Jimmy Carter struck a deal visiting Pyongyang.
In 2009, former president Bill Clinton negotiated the release of young journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for illegally crossing borders and committing 'hostile acts against the nation.'
The Associated Press contributed to this report.