Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old American who was arrested in North Korea six months ago for unspecified reasons, began his trial on Saturday in the North Korean Supreme Court on charges of "plotting to overthrow the government," the AP reported, quoting North Korea sources on Saturday.
If convicted, Bae could face life in prison or even the death penalty. Bae, a Korean-American who's Korean name is Pae Jun Ho, was arrested in early November in the northern part of the country near the city of Rason, which is located near the border with China and Russia, NPR reported. The reason for Bae's arrest was never given.
"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, as translated by the AP. "His crimes were proved by evidence. He will soon be taken to the Supreme Court of the DPRK to face judgment."
Bae and his American friends insist that he is a Christian missionary who was based in China and traveled to North Korea frequently to feed orphans.
Bae's arrest could complicate heightened tensions between North Korea and the U.S. over North Korea's nuclear weapons and bellicose threats against the U.S. and its allies.
"For North Korea, Bae is a bargaining chip in dealing with the U.S.," Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, South Korea, told the AP. "The North will use him in a way that helps bring the U.S. to talks when the mood slowly turns toward dialogue."
Bae is the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009. The most recent American detained before Bae was teacher Aijalon Mahli Gomes, from Boston, Mass., who was detained on Jan. 25, 2010, for illegally entering the country. Gomes was sentenced the following April to eight years of hard labor and fined $700,000. He was released on Aug. 27, 2010, after former U.S. President Jimmy Carter negotiated on his behalf. Gomes' reasons for infiltrating the DPRK were never clear; one of his colleagues at the South Korean middle school where Gomes taught said at the time, "I'm sure he felt that God was saying to him good can come out of this."
One of the most well-known incidents is the case of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who were arrested in 2009 after crossing into the DPRK from China and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. They were freed six months later after former U.S. President Bill Clinton intervened on their behalf.
The first American civilian arrested in the DPRK was Evan Hunziker, an evangelical Christian who traveled to South Korea in July 1996, after he was pulled out of the Yalu River by North Korean security forces. The Yalu makes up part of the border between China and the DPRK. Hunziker reportedly hopped into the water on a dare from a friend. He was charged with espionage that October. Hunziker's release was negotiated by New Mexico Congressman Bill Richardson and was coincided with an incident in which North Korea landed a submarine full of soldiers on South Korean soil, which cost North Korea a great deal of support and aid in the West. Richardson later said he suspected Hunziker was released partly as an attempt to gain back some U.S. favor.