North Korea's diplomatic strategy of throwing increasingly frustrating tantrums continues, as the Associated Press reported Saturday that U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae will be facing the Supreme Court on charges of "aiming to topple the Democratic People's Republic of Korea with hostility toward it." This announcement from North Korea comes during a lull in hostilities on the Korean peninsula, positioning the freedom of Bae as a bargaining chip in ongoing diplomatic negotiations.
Identified in the reports using his Korean name Pae Jun-Ho, Bae has been in prison since November after he was arrested entering the northeastern port city of Rason. Bae, a 44-year old Korean American tour operator, was travelling with five other tourists when he was nabbed for a computer hard disk that is now being used as "evidence," according to South Korean newspaper Kookmin Ilbo.
Very little information has been released about Bae by both North Korea and the U.S., however interviews with Bae's friends have revealed that he is a Christian missionary living in a Chinese border town. He would often cross the border to feed North Korean orphans; it is unknown if he was evangelizing during his trips. Even though officially North Korea has freedom of religion, the government has sentenced Christians to labor camps or execution, as they are seen as a Western influence.
The report released by North Korea also states that Bae has admitted to the "commited crimes" he is being charged for, however that sounds circumspect at best. This announcement by North Korea comes hours before U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and South Korean Foreing Minister Yun Byung-Se are scheduled to meet in Seoul to discuss the recent standoffs and threats made by North Korea.
Pyongyang has expressed anger at increased sanctions in February, and the ongoing U.S.-South Korean military exercises near the Sea of Japan. With even its historically close ally China in recent months sounding off against North Korea, Pyongyang has reacted petulantly in the past in order to regain negotiating ground.
Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean Studies at Seoul's Dongguk University, summarized this strategy, saying that "For North Korea, Bae is a bargaining chip in dealing with the U.S. The North will use him in a way that helps bring the U.S. to talks when the mood slowly turns toward dialogue."
Due to the sensitivity of relations with North Korea, this recent move is surely meant to draw the attention of heavyweight diplomats who have previously needed to intervene. However this is not going to be the only time North Korea tries to show its teeth in the coming months.