North Korea says it has handed a harsh sentence to two U.S. women journalists, more than two months after it captured them for allegedly crossing its border illegally. Whether they actually serve that sentence may depend on closed door diplomacy.
North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency reported Monday the country's highest court had sentenced U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee to 12 years of what it calls "reform through labor."
North Korean authorities captured the women in March, accusing them of illegally crossing the border from China and committing "hostile actions" against the country. Their employer, U.S. broadcaster Current TV, says they were gathering video footage for a documentary on human rights abuses of North Korean refugees.
The U.S. State Department says it is "deeply concerned" about the sentencing. In a recorded public phone announcement, the agency says it will continue seeking the women's freedom.
"We are engaged through all possible channels to secure their release. We once again urge North Korea to grant the immediate release of the two American citizen journalists on humanitarian grounds," the recording stated.
The sentence announcement comes days after the scheduled start of the trial last Thursday.
Kim Yong-hyun is a professor of North Korean studies at Dongkuk University in Seoul. He says the sentence has a lot to do with the North's diplomatic positioning towards the United States.
He says North Korea has created a concrete and practical matter requiring diplomatic contact with the United States. By handing the two women a harsh, 12-year labor penalty, he says, North Korea is pushing the United States to take practical action to free them.
Kim and most other analysts say the most likely next step is for Washington to send a special envoy to Pyongyang with the task of freeing the two women. Former Vice President Al Gore is frequently mentioned, not only because he is a co-founder of Current TV, but because he is a prestigious U.S. personage with no formal ties to the present administration.
Still, Professor Kim says sending Gore will not let the Obama administration completely off the hook.
He says if Al Gore does end up going to the North, it will be because some kind of negotiation took place first behind the scenes. North Korea is sure to use the substance of those behind the scenes negotiations in its future dealings with the United States.