North Korea may spare US journalists from hard labor

But the two women sentenced to 12 years in prison still face awful conditions. Their whereabouts since last week remain unknown.

Whenever the two American journalists imprisoned in North Korea go home, analysts doubt they'll emerge with tales from inside the sprawling gulag where 200,000 North Koreans are thought to be confined.

Those who have attempted to glean insights into North Korea's draconian prison system believe that Laura Ling and Euna Lee – each sentenced Monday to 12 years of "hard labor" – will serve in a conventional jail or a facility run by the national security agency.

"North Korea has four or five different kinds of correctional facilities," says Won Ki Choi, a longtime analyst of North Korean affairs, now based in Washington. A concentration camp – a gulag – is the last possibility."

Mr. Choi cites contacts inside North Korea saying that Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee were being held in a "guest house" operated by the North's security agency after soldiers picked them up on March 17 on the Tumen River border with China.

Reporting on human rights

The women had been filming a documentary for Current TV, the Internet cable network of which former US vice president Al Gore is chairman.

North Korean authorities accused them of committing "hostile acts" and entering the country illegally, but it's unclear whether they had crossed the river or were standing on the ice in the middle.

They had been reporting on North Korean human rights abuses, a topic that upsets North Korean officials. They were focusing on North Korean women who flee to China.

It is still not clear if North Korean authorities picked up the film they had already shot. The producer and cameraman on the project, Mitch Koss, escaped. He has not revealed publicly what he saw or whether he got away with his equipment and videotape.

Nor is there any indication from North Korea of what has happened to the women since their trial opened June 4.

"North Korea thinks these journalists are very valuable," Choi says. "Maybe they go from their four- or five-star state guest house to a one-star facility. Otherwise, when they get out they will give a big news conference and say how badly they were treated. North Korea is not that foolish."

No hard labor, but 'awful' conditions

Analysts agree North Korea is not likely to subject the women to the horrors of life in a gulag, despite the allusion to "hard labor" in the brief announcement carried by Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency.

Still, they believe Lee and Ling face a terrible existence while remaining in the North as pawns in a worsening confrontation between North Korea and the US.

"North Korean prisons are called labor reform institutes," says Kim Sang Hun, who has been aiding North Korea refugees ever since retiring from the UN World Food Program 15 years ago. "They will not be held with ordinary North Korean prisoners but in separate facilities. They know some day they will be released."

Still, Mr. Kim continues, life in a North Korean prison "will be awful."

Lee and Ling "will have no beatings and no hard work," he says, "but they will get very little food and will be very hungry."

He believes they will remain "in solitary cells," unable to communicate with one another and only rarely visited by a diplomat from the Swedish embassy, which represents US interests in Pyongyang.

Ling's sister did secret film in North

It will be "out of the question" for family members to see them, Kim continues. One reason may be that, several years ago Ling's older sister, Lisa Ling, posing as a member of a medical team, did a National Geographic documentary with a hidden camera. The film provided devastating insights into life in the North and the level of thought control imposed by the regime. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Laura Ling's sister.]

On the basis of interviews with numerous defectors, Kim says prisoners are poorly clothed and typically suffer from extreme heat in the summer and terrible cold in the winter; their diets consist of small portions of rice or wheat.

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