U.S. Journalists Sentenced to 12 Years of Hard Labor in North Korea

Obama is "deeply concerned" about the fate of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who will likely be used as bargaining chips by North Korea.

SEOUL (AFP) -- North Korea sentenced two female U.S. journalists to 12 years in a labor camp Monday for illegal entry and an unspecified "grave crime," further fueling tensions with Washington after testing a nuclear bomb.

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

A five-day trial "confirmed the grave crime they committed against the Korean nation and their illegal border crossing," the official Korean Central News Agency said, without explaining the crime.

The Central Court "sentenced each of them to 12 years of reform through labor."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Sunday the charges against the pair are baseless and they should be allowed to return home.

Clinton also said the United States was considering putting North Korea back on its terrorism blacklist following its recent nuclear and missile tests.

Border guards detained the TV reporters on March 17 along the frontier with China while they were researching a story about refugees fleeing the hardline communist North.

The North has been showing an increasingly uncompromising face to the world since it fired a long-range rocket on April 5.

After the United Nations Security Council punished the launch by tightening sanctions, the North responded on May 25 with its second nuclear test.

It has also renounced the armistice on the Korean peninsula and is said to be preparing to test medium-range missiles and a long-range Taepodong-2.

Pyongyang on Monday vowed to retaliate if the Council adopts a resolution punishing the atomic test.

It will regard "any sanctions against us as a declaration of war and will respond with due self-defensive measures," the communist party newspaper Rodong Sinmun said.

Analysts say the women will become pawns in efforts to open direct negotiations with the United States.

The North has long made clear its preference for direct talks with Washington over the stalled six-party negotiations on nuclear disarmament, of which the U.S. is a part.

The sentences "are tougher than expected," said Yoo Ho-Yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University.

"They aim to send a strong message to the United States that the North is taking the case very seriously and gravely," he told AFP.

"It also shows the North's strategy to bring the United States to the bilateral negotiating table."

Cheong Seong-Chang of Seoul's Sejong Institute think-tank said the pair would not be freed soon but added: "However, North Korea will consider releasing them if Washington accepts Pyongyang's demand for (direct) talks."

Pyongyang has in the past freed captured Americans but only after personal interventions. The U.S. State Department last week did not rule out a mission by former vice president Al Gore.

Gore is chairman of the California station Current TV which employs the two journalists, both aged in their thirties. Both are married and Lee has a four-year-old daughter.

Friends, family and colleagues held candlelight vigils in U.S. cities last week. Their relatives have appealed for clemency and urged the two governments not to link the case to the nuclear standoff.

The North on May 26 allowed them to phone their families in the United States.

"We had not heard their voices in over two and a half months," said Ling's sister Lisa last week. "They are very scared -- they're very, very scared."

The State Department in its latest rights report describes prison conditions in the North as "harsh and life-threatening" with cases of torture.

Convicts sentenced to "reform through labor" are typically subject to hard work at farms, mines, construction sites or factories, Cho Myung-Chul, a former defector and now an analyst, told Yonhap news agency.

The North's actions in the past two months have been "extraordinarily provocative," Obama said Saturday during a visit to France.

"And, in fact, we are not intending to continue a policy of rewarding provocation," he added.

The North is also holding a South Korean employee of the Kaesong joint industrial estate just north of the border.

He has been detained since March 30 for allegedly criticizing Pyongyang's political system and encouraging a woman worker to defect.

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