PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea announced Saturday that an American detained for nearly six months is being tried in the Supreme Court on charges of plotting to overthrow the government, a crime that could draw the death penalty if he is convicted.
The case involving Kenneth Bae, who has been in North Korean custody since early November, further complicates already fraught relations between Pyongyang and Washington following weeks of heightened rhetoric and tensions.
The trial mirrors a similar situation in 2009, when the U.S. and North Korea were locked in a standoff over Pyongyang’s decision to launch a long-range rocket and conduct an underground nuclear test. At the time, North Korea had custody of two American journalists, whose eventual release after being sentenced to 12 years of hard labor paved the way for diplomacy following months of tensions.
Bae was arrested in early November in Rason, a special economic zone in North Korea’s far northeastern region bordering China and Russia, according to official state media. In North Korean dispatches, Bae, a Korean American, is called Pae Jun Ho, the North Korean spelling of his Korean name.
The exact nature of his alleged crimes has not been revealed, but North Korea accuses Bae, described as a tour operator, of seeking to overthrow North Korea’s leadership.
“In the process of investigation he admitted that he committed crimes aimed to topple the DPRK with hostility toward it,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency said Saturday. “His crimes were proved by evidence. He will soon be taken to the Supreme Court of the DPRK to face judgment.”
DPRK is the acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. No timing for the verdict issued at the austere Supreme Court in Pyongyang was given.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. government is “aware of reports that a U.S. citizen will face trial in North Korea” and that officials from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang had visited Bae on Friday. She said she had no other information to share.
Because Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic relations, the Swedish Embassy in North Korea represents the United States in legal proceedings.
Friends and colleagues described Bae as a devout Christian from Washington state but based in the Chinese border city of Dalian who traveled frequently to North Korea to feed the country’s orphans.
At least three other Americans detained in recent years also have been devout Christians. While North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the regime. Under North Korea’s criminal code, crimes against the state can draw life imprisonment or the death sentence.
In 2009, American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced to hard labor for trespassing and unspecified hostile acts after being arrested near the border with China and held for four months. They were freed later that year to former President Bill Clinton, who flew to Pyongyang to negotiate their release in a visit that then-leader Kim Jong Il treated as a diplomatic coup.