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US weighs options to free journalists in North Korea

A tougher stance toward Pyongyang may complicate efforts to negotiate the release of the two women, who were sentenced Monday to 12 years of hard labor.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 8, 2009

Protesters hold portraits of US journalists Euna Lee (l) and Laura Ling, who have been detained by North Korea, during an anti-North Korea rally demanding for the release of the journalists, in Seoul June 4. North Korea put two U.S. journalists on trial on Thursday on charges of illegally entering the state with "hostile intent", in a case that could worsen tension with Washington after Pyongyang's nuclear test last week.

Jo Yong-Hak/REUTERS

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The sentence of 12 years of hard labor for two American journalists in North Korea opens a new chapter in efforts at winning their release.

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Analysts in Washington and Seoul agree on that much, after Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency said Laura Ling and Euna Lee would undergo "reform through labor" for having entered North Korea illegally while reporting for San Francisco-based Current TV along the Tumen River border with China.

The real question, though, is whether the North would be willing to talk further about their fates in a period of worsening confrontation between North Korea and the United States and between North and South Korea.

The two were seized by North Korean soldiers on March 17 and have been held in what's described by the Swedish ambassador to North Korea, representing US interests there, as a "state guest house" near Pyongyang. But their whereabouts since their trial last Thursday is not known.

There is no clue as to where or how they will serve their sentence. Nor has there been any word as to where they were when seized – though it's widely believed they had ventured onto the ice in the frozen river while filming a story on North Korean human rights abuses.

"Undoubtedly the North Koreans view them as a trump card," says Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Asia Foundation in Washington, but he warns that any dialogue for their release will be "particularly difficult since the US has been moving toward a tougher approach."

US toughens stance on North Korea

The sentencing coincides with an intensified US effort to obtain approval by the United Nations Security Council of tough sanctions against North Korea in retaliation for the North's underground nuclear test on May 25. The US has produced a draft resolution that is considerably stronger than the resolution adopted by the Security Council after the North's first nuclear test on Oct. 9, 2006.

The draft calls for inspection of cargo vessels suspected of carrying materiel and components for nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as well as the missiles for firing weapons of mass destruction to distant targets. Another provision of the draft calls for cracking down on financial institutions or companies involved in exporting the equipment that North Korea needs for its nuclear and other weapons programs.

The draft would in effect give approval by the UN Security Council of the provisions of the Proliferation Security Initiative, an effort engineered during the George W. Bush administration for cooperation among dozens of nations in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

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