SEOUL, South Korea — American tour operator Kenneth Bae starts his 15-year prison sentence on Wednesday at a North Korean "special prison."
Bae was sentenced for supposedly carrying enemy propaganda into North Korea, heightening tensions between Pyongyang and Washington.
Friends say Bae was based in a Chinese border city and traveled frequently to North Korea both as a tour operator and to feed orphans.
Pyongyang accused the American of setting up "plot-breeding bases in different places of China" to bring down the North Korean government "out of distrust and enmity" towards the country, the North Korean Supreme Court told state news agency KCNA.
He was arrested last November.
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State run media said Bae entered a "special prison" on Tuesday but did not specify what that was.
Two experts contacted by GlobalPost Wednesday said they are not sure of the meaning of the term "special prison."
But there's reason to believe Bae will not be sent to one of the six terrible gulags, or "kwanliso," set up for political enemies of the regime.
When Google chairman Eric Schmidt visited in January, authorities reassured him that Bae was in good health before he started his trial. Furthermore, American citizens imprisoned in North Korea have been given far better treatment than North Koreans sentenced of similar crimes — because Americans can be used as bargaining chips.
The American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, for instance, were found guilty in 2009 of illegally crossing into North Korea without a visa, and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. Neither was actually sent to a hard labor camp, and were released following a visit from former US President Bill Clinton.
Bae reportedly called his family in Washington state earlier this week and said he is unable to appeal his sentence and that Washington, DC, should push for his release.
US basketball star Dennis Rodman traveled to Pyongyang where he befriended Kim Jong Un.
Rodman asked the North Korean leader on his Twitter account to "do me a solid" and release Bae.
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Rodman says he plans to return to Pyongyang in August but there is no indication yet that a high-profile American envoy is being sent to North Korea to secure Bae's release, the AP reports.
Geoffrey Cain reported from Seoul. Follow him on Twitter @geoffrey_cain.