An American tour operator has been sentenced to 15  years at hard labor in North Korea for attempting to overthrow the Kim regime, Pyongyang announced overnight.  Kenneth Bae becomes the latest development in a months-long rhetorical war on the Korean peninsula and the US:

North Korea on Thursday sentenced a detained American to 15 years of “compulsory labor,” punishment for what Pyongyang describes as an attempt to overthrow its government.

In a brief statement released by its state-run news agency, the North said the sentence for Kenneth Bae, a tour operator from Washington state, had been handed down by its Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Bae’s punishment complicates the decision-making for Washington, which had been hoping to open talks with the North only if Pyongyang showed signs of curbing its weapons program. The North has detained six Americans since 2009, using them in some cases to leverage high-profile rescue trips from former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Bae was arrested last November while traveling with a small group in Rason, a special economic zone. The North has provided few specifics about Bae’s actions there, but activists in Seoul speculate he was perhaps found with pictures of hungry children.

This might be an attempt by Pyongyang to find a way out of the rhetorical trap of its own making.  The Kim regime was hoping that by threatening missile tests and blustering about war, they could push the US out of conducting regular war-games exercises with the RoK military.  Instead, we upped the ante several times by conducting F117 fly-bys and gaming out amphibious landings.  Rather than get concessions on sanctions, Pyongyang instead ended up irritating everyone, including their Chinese sponsors.

In sentencing Bae to hard labor, Kim Jong-un is just taking a page from Dear Leader Daddy’s playbook.  In 2009, Bill Clinton ended up making a special trip to free two American journalists from a similar fate and open talks on sanctions concessions, which allowed Kim Jong-il to declare victory at home.  Will the US reward this play again now?  It might be annoying, but it also might be a cheap way out of the standoff, too — and that has to have a certain appeal to the White House, especially one under pressure to conduct a deeply questionable intervention in Syria.