U.S. Calls for N. Korea Amnesty for Sentenced American

WASHINGTON (AP) -

The U.S. called Thursday for North Korea to grant amnesty and immediately release a Korean-American sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor for “hostile acts” against the state.

Kenneth Bae, 44, a Washington state man described by friends as a devout Christian and a tour operator, is at least the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009. The others eventually were deported or released without serving out their terms, some after trips to Pyongyang by prominent Americans, including former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Analysts say Bae’s sentencing could be an effort by Pyongyang to win diplomatic concessions in the ongoing standoff over its nuclear program. But there was no immediate sign a high-profile envoy was about to make a clemency mission to the isolated nation that has taken an increasingly confrontational stance under its young leader, Kim Jong Un.

State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the U.S. was still seeking to learn the facts of Bae’s case. He said the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which handles consular matters there for the U.S., did not attend Tuesday’s Supreme Court trial and that there hasn’t been transparency in the legal proceedings.

“There’s no greater priority for us than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad, and we urge the DPRK authorities to grant Mr. Bae amnesty and immediate release,” Ventrell told a news conference, referencing the socialist country’s formal title, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Pyongyang’s tone has softened somewhat recently, following weeks of violent rhetoric, including threats of nuclear war and missile strikes. There have been tentative signs of interest in diplomacy, and a major source of North Korean outrage — annual U.S.–South Korean military drills — ended Tuesday.

Friends and colleagues say Bae was based in the Chinese border city of Dalian and traveled frequently to North Korea to feed orphans. Bae’s mother, in the United States, did not answer calls seeking comment Thursday.