SEOUL: North Korea on Friday sentenced a detained Korean-American, Kim Dong-chul, to 10 years hard labor on charges of subversion and espionage, China’s official Xinhua news agency said.
The announcement, which comes at a time of elevated military tensions on the Korean peninsula, followed an even harsher sentence of 15 years hard labor passed last month on a US student, Otto Warmbier, for stealing a propaganda banner from a tourist hotel in Pyongyang.
The brief Xinhua despatch from Pyongyang said Kim’s penalty was handed down by North Korea’s Supreme Court.
There was no immediate North Korean confirmation of the sentence.
According to a prosecutor cited by the Chinese news agency, Kim carried out “reactionary propaganda” against North Korea “and injected into local people fantasies about the superiority of the United States, in order to shake the stability of the political and social system.”
The 62-year-old, who became a naturalized US citizen in 1987, was arrested back in October.
Kim was paraded in front of media cameras in the North Korean capital a month ago, when he admitted to stealing military secrets and pleaded for clemency in a carefully orchestrated “confession.”
His detention first came to public attention when he was produced in January during an interview CNN was conducting with a detained Canadian pastor in a Pyongyang hotel.
At that time, Kim said he had been living in China near the North Korean border for the past 15 years, commuting regularly to Rason—a North Korean special economic zone.
According to the North’s state media, he had been arrested in Rason as he was receiving a USB stick containing nuclear-linked data and other military information from his source.
The Supreme Court prosecutor said Kim started spying in 2013 after South Korean agents tasked him with collecting party, state and military secrets.
South Korea has denied any involvement in Kim’s case.
Foreigners detained in North Korea are often required to make a public, usually officially scripted acknowledgement of wrongdoing as a first step towards a possible release.
Observers said the long sentences handed down to Kim and Warmbier reflected soaring military tensions following the North’s nuclear test in January and long-range rocket launch a month later.
The United States took a leading role in securing the resulting sanctions that the UN Security Council imposed on the North in March.
In the past, North Korea has used the detention of US citizens to obtain high-profile visits from the likes of former US Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in order to secure their release.
The United States has no diplomatic or consular relations with the North. The Swedish embassy in Pyongyang provides limited consular services to US citizens detained there.
The US State Department “strongly recommends against all travel” to North Korea and specifically warns of the risk of arrest.