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North Korea on Monday found two American journalists guilty of illegal entry and unspecified "grave" crimes, and sentenced them each to 12 years of hard labor.
Euna Lee and Laura Ling both worked for Current TV, a San Francisco-based news-site cofounded by former US vice president Al Gore. They were arrested in March while working on a story about North Korean defectors.
"The trial confirmed the grave crime they [the reporters] committed against the Korean nation and their illegal border crossing," state-run KCNA news agency said in a brief report, adding that they were sentenced to 12 years of "reform through labour".
The BBC also noted Washington's response:
In a statement, the US State Department said: "We are deeply concerned by the reported sentencing of the two American citizen journalists by North Korean authorities, and we are engaged through all possible channels to secure their release."
US Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton earlier described the charges against the two women as "baseless". She is thought to be considering sending an envoy to try to negotiate their release.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has lately toughened her call on North Korea to free the two women....
Washington believes that "the charges against these young women are absolutely without merit or foundation," Clinton said in an interview with ABC television over the weekend. Clinton admitted to sending a letter asking for their release and said she has received "responses."
North Korea's labor camps have a grisly reputation. The Financial Times reported, "Defectors have told harrowing tales of North Korea's gulags, where inmates are termed "tailless animals" and arbitrary execution is common." One North Korean defector who escaped from a gulag turned his experiences into fodder for a macabre musical, the paper reported.
The US State Department estimates that between 150,000 and 200,000 prisoners are detained in the camps, "located in valleys in remote mountainous areas of the central and northern part of North Korea," reports Al Jazeera. "There are thought to be between six and eight main camps, with dozens of other smaller camps."
Al Jazeera cited recent reports by human rights groups, citing conditions including "Nazi-style experiments involving chemical and biological weapons resulting in the painful deaths of dozens of prisoners at a time."
A 2007 Anti-Slavery International report on conditions in the camps said: "The overcrowded and unhygienic facilities, combined with inadequate food, water and medical care and the arduous nature of the forced labour that prisoners have to perform mean that deaths in the labor camps are not uncommon."
But some analysts see Pyongyang's move as only a negotiating tactic. The Associated Press reports:
Many analysts believe there is a good chance the two woman will be freed. They say the reporters are being used by Pyongyang as bargaining chips in its standoff with South Korea and the United States, which are pushing for U.N. sanctions to punish the North for its latest nuclear test and a barrage of missile tests.
By sentencing them to prison, North Korea has "paved the way for a political pardon and a diplomatic solution," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.
Bloomberg noted that US prisoners had been released in previous cases:
Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson traveled to North Korea in 1996 to negotiate the release of an American who crossed into the country from China, swimming across the Yalu River. The man, who was charged with being a spy, was released after his parents paid a $5,000 fine.
The New York Times reports that the Obama administration was mulling intercepting North Korean sea and air shipments of weapons, possibly with China's help. The Times quoted President Barack Obama saying this weekend:
"I don't think there should be an assumption that we will simply continue down a path in which North Korea is constantly destabilizing the region and we just react in the same ways." He added, "We are not intending to continue a policy of rewarding provocation."
The Guardian said there were conflicting reports of how the two US journalists were taken into custody.
North Korea said the pair had entered the country after crossing the river, along its north-east border with China. Other reports said the women had been arrested on the Chinese side by North Korean guards who objected to being filmed. Their cameraman and guide managed to evade capture.