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All Headlines 10:22 June 11, 2009


N. Korea Sentences Two U.S. Journalists to 12 Years in Labor Camp

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Defying repeated U.S. calls for their immediate release, North Korea's highest court sentenced two detained U.S. journalists to 12 years in a labor camp on June 8 for an unspecified "grave crime against the Korean nation" and illegal entry, a heavy verdict that watchers say may extract direct negotiations from Washington for their release.

The North's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that the Central Court found Laura Ling and Euna Lee guilty of "a grave crime" against North Korea and of the "illegal crossing" of the North Korean border.

After a trial that was held June 4 to 8, the highest court in Pyongyang sentenced each of them to "12 years of reform through labor," the KCNA said. As to the grave crime, the news agency's Korean report cited "hostility toward the Korean people." No other details were available, and the trial was not open to outside observers.

The top court does not allow appeals. But watchers in Seoul believe the Americans will not serve the full sentence. Convicts sentenced to labor in North Korea are subject to hard work at farms, mines, construction sites or factories, according to North Korea experts in Seoul.

U.S. President Barack Obama was "deeply concerned" about the sentences handed down to the two American journalists, and his government was using "all possible channels" to obtain their release, the White House said.

Ling and Lee are reporters for the San Francisco-based Current TV. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore is a co-founder and a co-chair. The female reporters were captured on March 17 along the Tumen River near the China-North Korea border while reporting on the plight of North Korean refugees. But the conditions under which they were arrested remain under a shroud of secrecy.

The U.S. State Department called for their immediate release. "We are deeply concerned by the reported sentencing of the two American citizen journalists by North Korean authorities," spokesman Ian Kelly said in a statement. Kelly also said that Washington is "engaged through all possible channels to secure their release," but would not elaborate.

Since the U.S. has no diplomatic ties with North Korea, the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang has acted on behalf of Washington in dealing with the issue. Swedish Ambassador Mats Foyer met with the American journalists three times, according to the U.S. State Department. He was denied access to their trial in Pyongyang.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appealed on the day of the sentencing for North Korea to show clemency and repatriate the U.S. journalists on humanitarian grounds. Clinton also urged North Korea to treat the women's case as separate from the international showdown over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons test last month.

"We view these as entirely separate matters. We think the imprisonment, trial and sentencing of Laura and Euna should be viewed as a humanitarian matter. We hope that the North Koreans will grant clemency and deport them," Clinton said. "We are pursuing every possible approach that we can consider in order to persuade the North Koreans to release them and send these young women home. And we're engaged in all possible ways, through every possible channel, to secure their release," Clinton added.

Speculation has surfaced since the trial that Gore may travel to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of Ling and Lee. Neither the State Department nor Gore himself has publicly discussed the possibility.

At the time of the sentencing, pressure was building for the U.S. to place Pyongyang back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina said Pyongyang "has never stopped supporting terrorism" and "has done just the opposite and moved closer to equipping terrorists with nuclear weapons."

Clinton said, "There's a process for it (returning a country to the blacklist). Obviously we would want to see recent evidence of their support for international terrorism." When pressed for evidence, Clinton said, "We're just beginning to look at it. I don't have an answer for you right now."

The Bush administration removed North Korea from the terrorism blacklist in October last year, on the grounds that Pyongyang had agreed to take steps to verify its nuclear disarmament and pledged to continue disabling its nuclear facilities.

North Korea was first put on the terrorism list on Jan. 20, 1988, following the bombing by its agents of a Korean Air jetliner on Nov. 29, 1987, which killed all 115 on board. Currently, Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria remain on the list. Sanctions against these countries include a ban on defense exports and financial restrictions.

The Secretary of State also said the U.S. will try to intercept any North Korean shipments of nuclear material. "We are working very hard (at the United Nations) to create a mechanism where we can interdict North Korean shipments," Clinton said.

Observers believe North Korea is looking for a chance to open direct dialogue with the U.S. through the case. Pyongyang faces financial and diplomatic sanctions from the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council for its recent nuclear test. U.S. President Barack Obama said he is "not intending to continue a policy of rewarding provocation."

Clinton has acknowledged that bilateral contacts are underway. She sent a letter to North Korea apologizing for Ling and Lee's entry into North Korea and received "some responses," she said in an interview with ABC television over the weekend.

The verdict was harsher than expected based on the charges, which, according to the North's criminal law, usually carry a sentence between five to 10 years in a labor camp, although multiple counts may add up to heavier sentences. Iran's court had given an eight-year sentence to Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi for espionage. She was released weeks later.

"North Korea probably intends to keep the 'card,' rather than release them immediately, so as to connect it to bilateral political issues. It will try to pressure the U.S. into softening the harsh sanctions it is considering on Pyongyang," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul.

Clinton responded cautiously when asked about reports that Gore may fly to North Korea soon to negotiate the release of the journalists. She hinted last week that she may consider sending Gore or New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of the journalists.

Richardson, who won the release of two detained U.S. citizens in the 1990s, recently said the conclusion of the trial was a "good sign," meaning negotiations for the journalists' release can now begin.

Richardson obtained the release of Evan Hunziker, who was captured while swimming in the Yalu River on North Korea's border with China in 1996. Hunziker was set free in three months. The governor also successfully negotiated the release of U.S. Army helicopter pilot Bobby Hall, who was freed 13 days after his helicopter strayed into North Korea in 1994. The two cases did not involve trials.

Meanwhile, North Korea has kept mum about a South Korean citizen it has been holding since March 30. The Hyundai Asan Corp. employee, known only by his surname Yu, was detained at a joint industrial park in the North's border town of Kaesong for allegedly criticizing the North's political system and urging a female worker to defect.

Seoul will seek to negotiate Yu's release at government-level talks set for June 11 at the joint park.

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