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Published : 2012-12-30 20:25
Updated : 2012-12-30 20:25

The last thing a European diplomat might expect from a foreign posting is to represent the United States.

But that is exactly what Swedish envoys in North Korea do as part of their official duties. Now they are working around the clock to free an American citizen that North Korea finally confirmed on Dec. 21 it had detained.

But Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old Korean-American tour operator, is not likely to be released anytime soon, said Swedish Ambassador to South Korea Lars Danielsson.

Danielsson said Swedish diplomats in North Korea are working hard to free Bae from captivity.

No one knows when exactly he was picked up by North Korean authorities, but he has probably already spent over a month in isolation in a cell somewhere in the communist country.

“I have not seen any sign the North Koreans are willing to release him, but I am in Sweden now and have not received any additional information in the last 48 hours,” Danielsson said in a telephone interview with The Korea Herald on Dec. 24. 
Swedish Ambassador to Korea Lars Danielsson
American journalists Euna Lee (left) and Laura Ling are greeted by their husbands upon arriving home in Burbank, California, after enduring an ordeal in which North Korea arrested, tried and convicted them for crossing its border with China illegally in March 2009, sentencing them to 12 years hard labor. They were released four months later only after former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore personally intervened on their behalf in a high profile visit to Pyongyang.

Danielsson said he has been in frequent contact with his ambassadorial counterpart in North Korea. “With the rocket launch in North Korea and the elections in South Korea, we have a lot to discuss.”

Bae, who is from Lynnwood, Washington State, was arrested for unspecified crimes some time after he entered the country by way of the North Korean border city of Rajin on Nov. 3. He had been leading a group of five travelers on a five-day trip in the impoverished nation of 22 million.

Not far from Yanji in China’s Jilin Province, Rajin is a special economic zone that has sought to draw foreign investors and tourists over the past year. Yanji is home to many ethnic Koreans and is also a base for Korean Christian groups that shelter North Korean refugees.

Bae’s detention was first reported in South Korea in December. His detention was then confirmed by U.S. State Department officials in mid-December, and finally re-confirmed in a brief dispatch issued by the state-run Korean Central News Agency on Dec. 21.

Swedish diplomats led by Karl-Olof Andersson, Sweden’s ambassador to North Korea, are deeply involved in the case, as Sweden is the “protecting power” of the United States in North Korea.

That’s diplomatic speak meaning Sweden is in charge of all U.S. consular affairs there, which has become a bigger deal in recent years, as North Korea has opened up ever so slightly to the outside world and, consequently, an increasing number of curious American tourists are venturing a peek into the reclusive country.

In fact, it is no wonder Sweden is America’s protecting power, Danielsson said. The Nordic country has a long tradition as a protecting power for many countries.

Indeed, Sweden was the first Western country to open an embassy in North Korea ― establishing diplomatic relations with North Korea in 1973, and it serves as the protecting power on consular affairs for the U.S., Finland, Australia and Canada. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Sweden and North Korea.

Danielsson said Swedish officials in Pyongyang are in frequent contact with Bae, but he declined to give specific dates of when they met with him.

“Swedish diplomats are involved in every incident involving an American citizen in North Korea” and, because more Americans are visiting North Korea, “on a more regular basis,” he said.

One of Sweden’s main responsibilities as a protecting power is to make sure those who get into trouble or are detained are treated humanely.

“We always get involved one way or another, mainly on the consular and humanitarian basis,” he said. “What we do is make sure people being detained are receiving reasonable treatment, that they have access to legal assistance and the basic necessities of life.”

“The essence of our (role) ― I would not call it a ‘middle man,’ but rather a ‘go-between’ in the best sense of the word, as we represent the U.S. not North Korea,” he said.

Five U.S. citizens have been arrested for entering the country illegally or on unspecified crimes since 2009, according to a travel warning issued on Sep. 11 by the U.S. State Department.

The statement cautions visitors that “North Korean government authorities may also view taking unauthorized pictures as espionage, confiscate cameras and film and/or detain the photographer” in a chilling clue as to why Bae may have been apprehended.

The best-known case occurred in March 2009 when American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling were detained for crossing the Chinese-North Korean border illegally.

Bae was charged with vague crimes eerily similar to additional charges against Lee and Ling, “hostile acts against the republic.”

Their ordeal stretched into August of that year and was only resolved with a high profile intervention by former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore.

It is still unclear what it will take to secure the release of the American unharmed, but news of the apprehension trickled out on the heels of North Korea’s trumpeted launch of a satellite into space on Dec. 12, in defiance of calls by South Korea and the U.S. to cancel the liftoff widely seen as an illicit test of ballistic missile technology.

Korea watchers here say Bae is likely to become a bargaining chip for the North, an attempt to draw the U.S. into talks.

In the meantime and, as Swedish diplomats work furiously with American officials and others to free him, Bae sits in isolation in North Korean detention.

Kim Chong-tae of JoySeattle.com, a Korean language website in the Washington State region of the U.S., said the detainee’s father lives in Korea and his mother lives in Lynnwood, Washington.

“(Bae’s mother) hopes the State Department and the Swedish Embassy will help with his release,” he said on Dec. 21 according to one news report. “She’s trying not to speak to reporters, fearing that could affect her son’s release”

By Philip Iglauer (ephilip2011@heraldcorp.com)

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