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North Korea Has Handed Another US Citizen a Lengthy Hard Labor Sentence

The 62-year-old Korean American got 10 years after "confessing" to spying. The sentence follows a failed missile launch and comes as Russia and China denounce outside influence in the Korean Peninsula.

by VICE News and Reuters
Apr 29 2016, 11:25am

Kim Tong-chol at North Korea's Supreme Court on April 29, 2016. Photo via KCNA/EPA

North Korea has sentenced another US citizen to hard labor for subversion, just a day after the country's most recent missile launches ended in failure.

The country's Supreme Court on Friday condemned Korean-American Kim Dong-chul, 62, to ten years of hard labor after he admitted to committing "unpardonable espionage" including stealing military secrets, the North's official KCNA news agency reported.

"The accused confessed to all crimes he had committed (...) and gathered and offered information on its party, state and military affairs to the south Korean puppet regime, which are tantamount to state subversive plots and espionage," it said.

Kim was arrested in October in the North Korean special economic zone (SEZ) known as Rason, which sits across the border from South Korea and relies heavily on investment from the south. Kim reportedly owns a business in Rason.

State prosecutors sought a 15-year sentence for Kim, but his defense attorney requested leniency on account of his old age, KCNA said.

Kim was shown in photographs handcuffed and wearing a tie and blue jacket. He looked distressed and was flanked by uniformed guards.

Kim is just the latest foreigner to be convicted for crimes against the isolated state, with US student Otto Warmbier last month condemned to 15 years of hard labor over an attempt to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel. It is also holding a Korean-Canadian Christian pastor, who is serving a life sentence for subversion.

Related: Why a Secretive Group of Western Investors Are Bullish on Business in North Korea

North Korea, which has been criticized over its human rights record for years, has in the past used detained Americans to extract high-profile visits from the United States, with which it has no formal diplomatic relations.

It has previously handed down lengthy hard labor sentences to foreigners, though many are released within months. Some foreigners held by North Korea have said after their release that their sometimes-elaborate confessions were made under pressure while in captivity.

Six foreigners, including Kim and three South Koreans, are known to be detained in the North.

Kim, who has said he is a naturalized American citizen, had confessed to committing espionage under the direction of the US and South Korean governments and apologized for his crimes, according to the North's KCNA news agency in March.

He told foreign media in March that he was born in 1953 in Seoul and moved to the United States when he was 19. He said he set up a business in Rason SEZ in 2008.

China's Xinhua news agency on Friday said his business was a trading company called Dongmyong.

Kim said his two daughters lived in New York and he had siblings in South Korea, KCNA said in March.

North Korea has tightened security ahead of its first ruling party congress in 36 years, which will begin on May 6, at which the country's leader Kim Jong-un is expected to consolidate his power. In recent months, the young leader has intensified the country's pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, with numerous missile launches since the country's fourth nuclear test in January.

Its most recent missile launches came on Thursday, when two mid-range ballistic missiles crashed shortly after take-off, barely two weeks after the failed deployment of a similar projectile.

Related: Canada Slaps New Sanctions on 'Office 39,' North Korea's Slush Fund for Kim Jong-un

An emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council was called after Thursday's launch, according to the BBC.

The UN has attempted to lean hard on North Korea in recent months, with a rounds of sanctions aimed at preventing the country pursuing its nuclear program.

While China has publicly backed the sanctions, a meeting on Friday between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov saw the pair criticize the proposed collaboration between the United States and South Korea to deploy a missile system at the border between the Koreas known as the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD).

"Relevant countries shouldn't use Pyongyang's acts as a pretext to increase their military presence on the Korean Peninsula," Lavrov told a joint news conference, according to the Associated Press. "We believe the possible deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system won't resolve this problem."

Both Russia and China see the deployment as exceeding what is necessary to defend against any North Korean threat, while Wang said it would "directly affect strategic security of Russia and China."

That could "add fuel to the fire of an already tense situation and even possibly wreck the regional strategic balance," Wang said.

Both men called for efforts to restart long-stalled six-nation talks on ending North Korea's nuclear programs.

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