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American Detainee Sentenced to 6 Years Hard Labor in North Korea

Matthew Miller was convicted of espionage and the country's Supreme Court ruled out any chance of hearing an appeal in his case.

by Liz Fields
Sep 14 2014, 2:40pm

Photo by Kim Kwang Hyon/AP

North Korea has sentenced a US detainee to six years of hard labor for committing "acts hostile" to Pyongyang, the country's state media reported Sunday.

After months of imprisonment without charge under murky circumstances, the North Korean Supreme Court charged 24-year-old Matthew Miller of Bakersfield, California, with entering the country illegally to commit espionage.

At his trial, a pale but deadpan Miller sported the same or similar black turtleneck that he wore during a bizarre staged interview he was allowed to make with foreign media earlier this month. He remained emotionless throughout the trial, according to the Associated Press, after waiving the right to a lawyer.

Following the sentencing, Miller was handcuffed and led out of the room. The court on Sunday ruled out hearing any appeals in his case.

North Korea Sets Trial Date for American Detainee Matthew Miller. Read more here.

Korean authorities were initially not forthcoming on details of the events leading to Miller's detention. Earlier in the year, state media reported that Miller had ripped up his tourist visa upon arrival to the country in April and demanded asylum.

But on Sunday, the prosecution contended that his unusual behavior was a mask for covert activities, and said that Miller claimed to have information about US military activity in South Korea stored on his iPad and iPod.

"He committed acts hostile to the DPRK while entering the territory of the DPRK under the guise of a tourist last April," state media reported in a short statement on Miller's sentencing, using an acronym for the country's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Miller is the youngest of three US detainees currently in North Korean custody. Kenneth Bae, 46, a missionary, was arrested in November 2012 and is currently serving a 15-year sentence of hard labor for allegedly attempting to overthrow the North Korean government.

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A trial date for the third American, Jeffrey Fowle, 56, from Ohio, has not yet been announced. He was arrested by authorities in the port town of Chonjin in May this year for allegedly leaving a Bible in the toilet at a sailor's club.

Fowle's wife, a Russian hairstylist, has made an appeal in a letter to Russia's president Vladimir Putin on his behalf. Russia responded that it was monitoring the situation, Fowle said.

All three men were granted rare interviews with CNN less than two weeks ago, in which they each made pleas for help to the American government in separate five minute interviews as North Korean officials looked on.

The US had pledged to do everything in its power to help the detainees, but it has no formal diplomatic ties with the isolated nation. Sweden has been acting as an intermediary, and Swedish representatives last visited the American prisoners in June.

Shortly after the CNN interview aired, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki asked the North Korean government to release the three detainees out of "humanitarian concern."

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"We also request the DPRK pardon Kenneth Bae and grant him special amnesty and immediate release so he may reunite with his family and seek medical care. We continue to work actively to secure these three US citizens' release," Psaki said.

The State Department has also unsuccessfully offered to send Robert King, envoy for North Korean human rights issues, to Pyongyang to intervene on behalf of the prisoners on numerous occasions.

In several instances, the US has managed to negotiate the release of American detainees in North Korea. Former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter each made separate trips in 2009 and 2010 respectively to secure the amnesty of jailed US citizens. The next year, the US envoy for human rights to North Korea assisted in the freeing of a Korean-American businessman.

In a July interview with the Associated Press, a neighbor of Miller's said the then 20-year-old had first traveled to South Korea four years ago to visit his brother, who is stationed at a US Air Force base. During his time there, Miller taught English and learned Korean, Carol Stewart said.

Despite US government travel warnings, Miller made the trip to North Korea on a tour organized by New Jersey-based travel agency Uri Tours, which specializes in North Korea tourism.

The company has since issued further advice for potential tourists to North Korea, instructing them to avoid ripping up any official documents and to "refrain from any type of proselytizing."


Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields