Bae, 44, was born in South Korea but is a naturalised American citizen and attended the University of Oregon. According to U.S. media, he most recently lived in the Seattle suburb of Lynnwood. His sentencing comes after two months of sabre-rattling by Pyongyang that saw North Korea threaten both the United States and South Korea with nuclear war. Bae is believed to be a devout Christian, according to human rights activists in South Korea, who say he may have been arrested for taking pictures of starving children, known as "kotjebi" or fluttering swallows. Bae was part of a group of five tourists who visited the northeastern North Korean city of Rajin in November and has been held since then. North Korean state news agency KCNA did not list any specific charge other than crimes against the state, and used a Korean rendering of Bae's name, Pae Jun-ho, when it reported the Supreme Court ruling.
Bae's sentence was heftier than the 12 years handed down to two U.S. journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, in 2009. It took a visit to Pyongyang by former President Bill Clinton to secure their release.
North Korea appears to use the release of high profile American prisoners to extract a form of personal tribute, rather than for economic or diplomatic gain, often portraying visiting dignitaries as paying homage.
"I think his sentencing was hefty. North Korea seemed to consider his acts more severe," said Jang Myung-bong, honorary professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and a North Korea law expert.
Bae was given counsel by the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which has consistently declined to comment on the case, as the United States does not have diplomatic relations with the North.
According to North Korean law, the punishment for hostile acts against the state is between five and 10 years hard labour.