U.S. urges North Korea to free American facing 15 years hard labor

The United States pressed North Korea on Thursday to free an American citizen, Kenneth Bae, reportedly arrested for taking pictures of starving orphans. He was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for unspecified crimes against the state.

“There is 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,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters, referring to the country's official name, Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Ventrell declined to say specifically whether Washington called into question the legitimacy of Bae's trial, but said Washington has had longstanding "deep concerns about the transparency and due process" in the North Korean legal system.

The spokesman could not detail the charges against Bae, who is 44, or say how he was doing.

"We don’t know the facts of the case," Ventrell said. "There hasn’t been transparency."

U.S. officials are pressing for access to Bae through the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which represents U.S. interests in North Korea. There is no U.S. embassy there. Swedish officials last had access to Bae on April 26, and did not attend the trial, said Ventrell.

North Korea in the past has jailed Americans in a bid for diplomatic attention. But Ventrell said he was "not aware one way or another" whether any prominent dignitary would go in response to Bae's imprisonment.

According to news reports, Bae is a devout Christian who may have been arrested for taking pictures of starving kids known as “kotjebi," or “fluttering swallows.” He was apparently arrested in November. The state-run North Korean news agency KCNA said that Bae “admitted that he committed crimes aimed to topple the DPRK with hostility toward it.”