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.
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.
The sentencing of Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee is expected to complicate US efforts at bringing North Korea to terms. It may not, however, have an immediately noticeable impact.
"My guess is there's going to be a real resistance to conflating this issue with the missile and nuclear issue," says Gordon Flake, executive director of the Washington-based Mansfield Foundation, which sets up programs and exchanges with countries. "The most likely scenario would be to try to hold a separate dialogue with the North Koreans."
Al Gore to the rescue?
One possibility, widely mentioned in recent days, would be for Al Gore, the former vice president and the chairman of Current TV, to go to North Korea in hopes of bringing the women home – or at least negotiating.
"Given Al Gore's ties with Current TV, that would make a good deal of sense," says Mr. Flake, but he adds that Mr. Gore's mission at this stage "might complicate matters" with no guarantee of success.
Neither Gore nor Current TV has commented. Mitch Koss, the producer who was with Ling and Lee but escaped capture, has offered no explanation or account in public of what happened.
The White House said Monday it's working through "all available channels" to bring about the journalists' release. US diplomats may approach the North Koreans at North Korea's mission to the United States, and the Americans are expected to go through contacts in Beijing who do business with North Korea.
Some observers believe that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton added to the problem by not ruling out the possibility of putting North Korea back on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism during an interview Sunday on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."
Clinton's predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, removed the North from the list last October in hopes North Korea would fulfill the promises of 2007 six-party agreements that set up terms for dismantling and disabling its nuclear facilities and giving up its nuclear program.
It is unclear whether Clinton's words were designed to carry a warning to North Korea regarding the journalists. "We're going to look at it," when asked if North Korea might go back on the terror list. "Obviously, we would want to see recent evidence of their support for international terrorism."
In the meantime, it seems certain that "they will be used as bargaining chips," says Tim Peters, an American missionary in South Korea with wide experience with North Korean defectors.
Kam Sang-hun, a longtime activist in Seoul on human rights in North Korea, says he does not take the sentence of the two women seriously.
"You must remember North Korea is not a country of rule of law," he says. "It is not a result of a legal process but of political considerations."