Skip to main content

'He's not a spy,' says sister of U.S. man sentenced in North Korea

By Dana Ford, Jethro Mullen and K.J. Kwon, CNN
May 3, 2013 -- Updated 2344 GMT (0744 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Terri Chung asks leaders of both nations to see her brother as just "one man"
  • He is known in the U.S. as Kenneth Bae and is referred to as Pae Jun Ho by North Korea
  • The U.S. State Department demands Bae's release, "full stop"
  • North Korean state media report he committed "hostile acts" against the state

Read a version of this story in Arabic.

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- The sister of a U.S. citizen sentenced to 15 years in a North Korean labor camp defended her brother Thursday, asking leaders of both nations to "please, just see him as one man."

Pae Jun Ho, known as Kenneth Bae by U.S. authorities, was found guilty of unspecified "hostile acts" against the reclusive Stalinist state, the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency reported. KCNA said the Korean-American was arrested November 3 after arriving as a tourist in Rason City, a port in the northeastern corner of North Korea.

North Korean law allows up to 10 days of processing before a sentence is enforced, so it wasn't immediately clear when Bae would report for hard labor, or where he was being held in the meantime.

"We just pray, and ask for leaders of both nations to please, just see him as one man, caught in between," Terri Chung, Bae's sister, told CNN's Anderson Cooper 360. "He's a father to three children, and we just ask that he be allowed to come home."

An Iranian court threw out a 2011 death sentence for Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine charged with spying. But he was secretly retried in Iran and convicted of "practical collaboration with the U.S. government," his sister told CNN on Friday, April 11. He has been sentenced to 10 years in prison, she said. Hekmati was detained in August 2011 during a visit to see his grandmother. His family and the Obama administration deny accusations he was spying for the CIA. An Iranian court threw out a 2011 death sentence for Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine charged with spying. But he was secretly retried in Iran and convicted of "practical collaboration with the U.S. government," his sister told CNN on Friday, April 11. He has been sentenced to 10 years in prison, she said. Hekmati was detained in August 2011 during a visit to see his grandmother. His family and the Obama administration deny accusations he was spying for the CIA.
Americans detained abroad
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
>
>>
Photos: Americans detained abroad Photos: Americans detained abroad
American faces 15 years of hard labor
Sister baffled by North Korea punishment
Jailed American an asset for North Korea

She said her family has spoken to Bae once in the last six months. Sounding "incredibly calm under the circumstances," he called last week and tried to reassure family members, but they are devastated, Chung told Cooper.

"You know, Kenneth is a good man; he's not a spy. He has never had any evil intentions against North Korea, or any other country for that matter," she said.

Bae is the owner of a tour company and was in North Korea for work, according to Chung.

"He didn't have any problems going there last time, last year five times, so he didn't have any reason to suspect that there would be any trouble this time around," she said.

Her brother's case raises the possibly of another delicate diplomatic dance over an American captive.

In previous instances, North Korea has released Americans in its custody after a visit by some U.S. dignitary -- in recent cases, former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

But Bae's case could get caught up in the recent tensions between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as the North is formally known, and the United States.

"You all are aware of the history and how this has happened in the past with U.S. citizens," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters in Washington. "But what we're calling for and we're urging the DPRK authorities to do is to grant him amnesty and to allow for his immediate release, full stop."

Ventrell said the State Department is still trying to confirm details of the case through Swedish diplomats who visited Bae last week. Sweden represents U.S. interests in North Korea because Washington has no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

"We've had longstanding concerns about the lack of transparency and due process in the North Korean legal system," he said. "So now that Mr. Bae has gone through a legal process, we urge the DPRK to grant him amnesty and immediate release."

U.S. officials have struggled to establish how exactly Bae fell afoul of North Korean authorities. The North Korean statement on his conviction provided no details of the allegations against him.

"This was somebody who was a tour operator, who has been there in the past and has a visa to go to the North," a senior U.S. official told CNN on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue.

Read more: The North Korea we rarely see

The news comes on the heels of weeks of superheated rhetoric from North Korea, which conducted its third nuclear test in February and launched a satellite into orbit atop a long-range rocket in December. Washington responded by deploying additional missile interceptors on the West Coast, dispatching a missile defense system to the Pacific territory of Guam and bolstering annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises with overflights by nuclear-capable B-2 and B-52 bombers.

But the intensity of the North's rhetoric appears to have subsided recently, and the U.S.-South Korean drills finished this week, removing another source of friction.

Read more: Why I fled North Korea

Previous situations involving Americans arrested in North Korea have usually been resolved with a red-carpet appearance by a prominent former official.

In 2010, former President Jimmy Carter secured the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a former English teacher who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for entering the North from China. In 2009, the North freed American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee to former President Bill Clinton. Ling and Lee had been arrested while reporting from the North Korean-Chinese border and sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp.

Analysts say high-level visits are a show of respect toward Pyongyang, a propaganda boost for the North that gives it a face-saving way to release a captive. In 2009, North Korean officials rejected several lower-level envoys before settling on Clinton, who sat for three hours of dinner and photos with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

In one recent case, however, North Korea released an American prisoner without any apparent U.S. intervention. Robert Park had been arrested after crossing into the North to bring "a message of Christ's love and forgiveness" to Kim Jong Il in December 2009; he was released the following February, after what the state-run news agency KCNA called an "admission and sincere repentance of his wrongdoings."

CNN iReport: Our global fear and fascination

But a visit to Pyongyang in January by a delegation led by Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt didn't appear to make any breakthrough in Bae's case.

The State Department had objected to the delegation's trip, saying it was ill-timed. The visit took place about a month after North Korea had launched a long-range rocket that put an object in orbit and prompted condemnation from the international community.

North Korea is considered to have one of the most repressive penal systems in the world. Human rights groups estimate that as many as 200,000 people are being held in a network of prison camps that the regime is believed to use to crush political dissent.

The United Nations Human Rights Council said in March that it would set up a commission of inquiry to examine what it called "grave, widespread and systematic" violations of human rights in North Korea.

North Korea reacted to the move with indignation, saying it had "one of the best systems for promotion and protection of human rights in the world."

Why is North Korea cooling it?

K.J. Kwon reported from Seoul; Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong; Dana Ford reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Elise Labott and Jamie Crawford in Washington also contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Experts warn that under Kim Jong Un's rule, Pyongyang has shown an even greater willingness to raise the stakes than before.
March 18, 2014 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
China and North Korea criticize a U.N. report that found crimes against humanity committed in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
March 17, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
Megumi Yokota was only 13 when she was abducted by a North Korean agent in the 1970s. What happened after that?
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 0430 GMT (1230 HKT)
Report: North Korea uses multiple techniques to defy sanctions, and shows no signs of abandoning its nuclear missile programs.
February 21, 2014 -- Updated 0817 GMT (1617 HKT)
Families torn apart for more than 60 years -- separated by the Korean War -- began to reunite at a mountain resort in North Korea Thursday.
February 18, 2014 -- Updated 1150 GMT (1950 HKT)
A stunning catalog of torture and the widespread abuse of even the weakest of North Koreans reveal a portrait of a brutal state, the UN reported.
February 18, 2014 -- Updated 0431 GMT (1231 HKT)
Former prisoners in North Korea describe horrific stories of being tortured by authorities.
February 14, 2014 -- Updated 1527 GMT (2327 HKT)
Skiing is not the first thing that springs to mind when thinking about the isolated nation, but North Korea's ski resort is world class.
February 8, 2014 -- Updated 0315 GMT (1115 HKT)
American Kenneth Bae, who is being held in North Korea, has been moved from a hospital to a labor camp.
January 8, 2014 -- Updated 0213 GMT (1013 HKT)
Why is he being held by North Korea in a prison camp? These are the questions for many since his arrest in the isolated country in 2012.
January 27, 2014 -- Updated 0818 GMT (1618 HKT)
The first time the South Korean factory owner watched his North Korean employees nibble on a Choco Pie, they appeared shocked.
January 8, 2014 -- Updated 0126 GMT (0926 HKT)
Dennis Rodman's "Big Bang in Pyongyang" may be in a league of its own, but other stars too have mixed with repressive regimes before.
December 19, 2013 -- Updated 1800 GMT (0200 HKT)
Former NBA star Dennis Rodman arrives in North Korea to train basketball players, state-run media reports.
December 18, 2013 -- Updated 0250 GMT (1050 HKT)
The nation held a memorial in the honor of former North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il on the second anniversary of his death.
December 13, 2013 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
Days after he was removed from his powerful military post, Jang Song Thaek was called a traitor and executed.
ADVERTISEMENT