The families of two U.S. journalists sentenced to 12 years in a North Korean labor prison Monday said they were "shocked and saddened" by the verdict and begged the nation's reclusive government to release their loved ones.
The North's Central Court tried American TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee during proceedings running from last Thursday to Monday and found them guilty of a "grave crime" against the nation, and of illegally crossing into North Korea, the country's state-run Korean Central News Agency said.
It said the court "sentenced each of them to 12 years of reform through labor." The KCNA report gave no other details.
The sentencing intensifies the nation's confrontation with the United States, but also sets the stage for possible negotiations to secure their release — perhaps involving an envoy from the U.S.
"We remain hopeful that the governments of the United States and North Korea can come to an agreement that will result in the release of the girls," the reporters' families said in a statement released Monday afternoon.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who helped win the release of Americans from North Korea in the 1990s, said he was "ready to do anything" the Obama administration asked. Another possible negotiator, if the U.S. government approved, is former Vice President Al Gore, who founded the TV venture that both reporters work for.
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A senior Obama administration official said Richardson and Gore had been in contact with the White House and State Department about potential next steps to win release of the reporters, both of whom work for Gore's Current TV.
The White House Monday said in a statement that it is working through "all possible channels" to help free Ling and Lee.
"The president is 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," deputy spokesman William Burton said.
The circumstances surrounding the trial of the two journalists and their arrest March 17 on the China-North Korean border have been shrouded in secrecy, as is typical of the reclusive nation. The trial was not open to the public or foreign observers, including the Swedish Embassy, which looks after American interests in the absence of diplomatic relations.
U.S. officials and others working for the reporters' release have said they have received no information about the defendants and even lacked independent confirmation about whether the trial had started.
There have been fears that the two woman were 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 nation for its latest nuclear test and a barrage of missile tests.
The journalists were arrested as they were reporting about the trafficking of women. It's unclear if they strayed into the North or were grabbed by aggressive border guards who crossed into China.
Their families called for the North Korean government to "show compassion and grant Laura and Euna clemency and allow them to return home to their families."
"Laura and Euna are journalists who went to the China-North Korea border to do a job," their statement read. "We don't know what really happened on March 17, but if they wandered across the border without permission, we apologize on their behalf and we are certain that they have also apologized.
"We are very concerned about their mental state and wellbeing. Laura has a serious medical condition that is sure to be exacerbated by the drastic sentence. Euna has a 4-year-old daughter who is displaying signs of anguish over the absence of her mother. We believe that the three months they have already spent under arrest with little communication with their families is long enough."
The U.S. Embassy in Seoul did not immediately comment.
The sentences are much harsher than what many observers had hoped for.
Choi Eun-suk, a professor on North Korean legal affairs at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in South Korea, had speculated that the reporters would likely be sentenced to more than five years but less than 10 years in a labor prison. Then the negotiations with the U.S. would begin, he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday she was "incredibly concerned" about the plight of the two women. In working for their release, Clinton said she has spoken with foreign officials with influence in North Korea and explored the possibility of sending an envoy to the North, but suggested that no one would be sent during the trial.
Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean expert at Dongguk University in Seoul, had said Pyongyang will likely free the reporters and treat their release as a goodwill gesture that should be reciprocated with a special U.S. envoy visiting the isolated state.
Another American who was tried in North Korea in 1996 was treated more leniently. Evan C. Hunziker, apparently acting on a drunken dare, swam across the Yalu River — which marks the North's border with China — and was arrested after farmers found the man, then 26, naked. He was accused of spying and detained for three months before being freed after negotiations with a special U.S. envoy.
The North Koreans wanted Hunziker to pay a $100,000 criminal fine but eventually agreed on a $5,000 payment to settle a bill for a hotel where he was detained.