North sentences two Southerners to hard labor

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North sentences two Southerners to hard labor

North Korea sentenced two South Koreans Tuesday to life in prison with hard labor for supposedly being spies for the United States and South Korea. It has refused demands from South Korea that the two men be released along with two other South Koreans in captivity.

According to the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the North’s Supreme Court found Kim Kuk-gi and Choe Chun-gil guilty of “taking active part in state-sponsored political terrorism” guided by “hostility” from the U.S. and South Korea.

The court cited criminal activities allegedly committed by the defendants including “gathering of information on the supreme leadership of the DPRK and its party, state and military secrets and situation, and offering them to South Korea’s intelligence service.” DPRK is an acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The KCNA said the prosecution requested capital punishment for the two, arguing they had committed “hideous state-sponsored terrorism against the dignified supreme leadership of the DPRK.”

But their state-designated lawyer asked the court to commute the sentence to hard labor so that they could “repent” for their wrongdoing, the state-controlled media said.

A day after the ruling, North Korea released a three-minute clip on the Chinese video sharing site Youku showing the sentencing. In the video, Kim and Choe accepted all charges of espionage with the latter overwhelmed with emotion and crying.

“I apologize to the government of North Korea and its people,” said Choe, standing before two guards in military uniforms.

The North’s move is expected to further strain already miserable bilateral ties.

There were hopes earlier that the frozen ties could see some thaw as the countries mark the 15th anniversary of the first South-North summit as well as the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japan’s occupation in 1945. But no progress has been seen so far this year. The two sides failed to host a commemoration for the 15th anniversary of the joint declaration from the 2000 summit, which paved the way for inter-Korean cooperation and an easing of decades of tensions on the peninsula.

The fact that the ruling was handed down on the same day the UN opened a field office in Seoul to monitor human rights violations in the North, most notably its operation of political prisons that are estimated to house up to 200,000 inmates, sparked speculation that it was an act of retribution by the North for the launch.

“The sentencing can be construed as its response to the UN field office opening in Seoul,” Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University, told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “The North showed its intention to further add pressure on the South Korean government by revealing details of the trial when it could have just stated the sentence briefly.”

On the possibility of the UN office having a negative impact on inter-Korean relations, Koh said it depends on the scope of activities it will carry out and whether they will be done publicly or not.

While the two South Koreans were sentenced to life with hard labor, two other South Koreans are being held in Pyongyang without being indicted for crimes. Pyongyang has held Christian missionary Kim Jung-wook and Joo Won-moon, a 21-year old enrolled at New York University.

Joo said in a May interview with CNN that he entered the reclusive state illegally in hopes that he “could have a good effect in the relationship.”

While calling the North’s ruling Tuesday a violation of international norms and basic human rights, the South Korean government said Wednesday it was working with various international governments and groups to secure the release of all four South Korean citizens.

Lim Byeong-cheol, spokesman of the Unification Ministry, said Wednesday that although he could not reveal whom the government has been consulting due to “diplomatic sensitivity,” the government has been in talks with various international partners.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]
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