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Originally published May 2, 2013 at 3:52 PM | Page modified May 3, 2013 at 6:51 AM

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Editorial: North Korea must release Kenneth Bae

North Korea is likely using Kenneth Bae of Lynnwood as bait in a desperate game for political legitimacy. China’s role is key to helping to secure the tour operator’s release.

Seattle Times Editorial

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NORTH Korea’s sentencing of Kenneth Bae to 15 years of hard labor is likely meant to provoke the United States. China and other international allies interested in regional stability should encourage that isolated regime to release the Lynnwood man on humanitarian grounds, as it has done for other Americans trapped in similar circumstances.

North Korea’s Supreme Court sentenced Bae for “hostile acts” against the country, the government-run Korean Central News Agency said Thursday. That’s a less serious charge than the one Bae reportedly faced last weekend — trying to overthrow the government, a crime that could have led to the death penalty.

Bae operates a tour company out of China and has led groups to North Korea before. South Korean humanitarians say before his Nov. 3, 2012, arrest, he may have taken photos while feeding orphans in the border region of Rason. The European travelers in Bae’s tour were reportedly released.

U.S. officials know this game well. In the past, Americans crossing the border were held until a high-profile visit from the likes of former presidents Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter.

The difference this time is tensions are especially high with North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, eager to prove himself. In December, the regime launched a long-range rocket. In February, it conducted a third nuclear test.

These actions have brought international condemnation.

The Embassy of Sweden represents U.S. interests in Pyongyang, but U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says China’s longstanding diplomatic relations with North Korea will be instrumental in getting Kim’s rogue government to listen.

After months of relative silence on the circumstances of Bae’s detention, a State Department official this week called accusations against the Washington resident “completely unwarranted” and lacking in substance.

North Korea does itself no favors by keeping Kenneth Bae in custody.

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