SEOUL, June 24, 2010 (AFP) - North Korea threatened harsher punishment Thursday for a jailed US citizen unless Washington drops a campaign to censure it for the sinking of a South Korean warship.
Aijalon Gomes is currently serving eight years' hard labour for an illegal border crossing.
Gomes, a former English teacher in South Korea and reportedly a devout Christian, was arrested in January - the fourth US citizen in less than a year to be detained for illegal entry.
North Korea can never accept US requests to free Gomes under the current situation "and there remains only the issue of what harsher punishment will be meted out to him", the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.
"If the US persists in its hostile approach toward the (North), the latter will naturally be compelled to consider the issue of applying a wartime law to him," it said without elaborating.
An analyst said "wartime law" could mean life imprisonment or even a death sentence.
The statement raised the stakes in the confrontation over the warship, which sank on March 26 with the loss of 46 lives.
South Korea, the United States and some other countries, citing the findings of a multinational investigation, say a North Korean submarine torpedoed the ship.
The US and South Korea are pressing the United Nations Security Council to censure the hardline communist state. The North denies involvement and is threatening military action if the council takes action.
The North accused Washington of "persistently antagonising" it over the warship issue and described the current situation as a "war phase".
"An institution concerned is now examining the issue of what additional measure it will take against American Gomes in line with a wartime law," KCNA said.
The 30-year-old from Boston was sentenced in April to eight years' hard labour and a fine of 70 million won, equivalent to about 700,000 dollars at the official exchange rate.
Washington called for him to be granted amnesty after the North pardoned and deported the three previous offenders.
"This is a message to Washington that relations between Pyongyang and Washington could get worse unless the United States eases its pressure over the sinking of the South Korean warship," said Yang Moo-Jin of Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.
"Under a wartime law, a heavier penalty such as life imprisonment and death is always possible to people from an enemy country," he told AFP.
Gomes crossed into the North one month after US missionary Robert Park walked into the country across a frozen border river from China on Christmas Day, calling on leader Kim Jong-Il to quit because of rights abuses.
A Seoul activist, Jo Sung-Rae, has said Gomes may have been inspired by Park's example.
North Korea freed Park in February without putting him on trial. Its official news agency quoted him as saying he had been misled by false Western propaganda.