U.S. Journalists Sentenced To North Korean Prison

North Korea's state news agency says the country's top court has convicted two U.S. journalists and sentenced them to 12 years in a labor prison. The report says the trial confirmed that Laura Ling and Euna Lee committed an unspecified "grave crime" against the nation, and of illegally crossing into North Korea.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Word comes this morning that high court in North Korea has sentenced two American journalists to 12 years in a labor camp. The two women had been arrested in March during a reporting trip on the China, North Korea border. They were tried and convicted of grave crimes against North Korea, the nature of which was never specified. The question now is whether Pyongyang would like to use the pair as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the U.S. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Seoul, South Korea and good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN: Good morning Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tell us more about the trial and also about what this conviction means.

KUHN: Well, we don't have a lot of details from the trial such as who represented the journalists or what they argued, because the trial was closed to the public - not even any foreign diplomats were allowed in. We also know that it was the highest court in North Korea, the Central Court, so they have nowhere to appeal this verdict. And it was also pretty fast. Most trials in North Korea can take up to a month. The conviction and the sentence seemed pretty much in line with the charges which are that they illegally entered the country and that they committed hostile acts against North Korea. Of course that's a very vague charge.

Nobody thought it was very likely that they would have been found innocent because that would have suggested that the authorities acted in a wrong way in the first place.

MONTAGNE: Although this sentence sounds on its surface, terribly harsh, and especially since it involves hard labor, I gather, but is it likely that they will actually be held for that long?

KUHN: Well, it's very hard to tell. I mean, we have previous examples of being held in North Korea. There was a helicopter pilot who was held there for 13 days in 1994. I think it could depend, to a certain extent, on whether or not Pyongyang is ready to negotiate with Washington. Now Washington has offered them direct negotiations over the subject of the nuclear issue, but essentially they have been rebuffed, which suggests that North Korea is not yet ready to negotiate. So, it could take some time before North Korea feels it's in an advantageous enough position to go back to the bargaining table over the journalists.

MONTAGNE: And Anthony, these two journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, they were working for the cable channel Current TV. Now Al Gore is the founder, one of the founders of that TV channel. What are the chances that he might play a role in this case?

KUHN: Well, experts have been suggesting for sometime that this is the logic that North Koreans go by. They would like to see some famous American, some current high ranking or retired U.S. official, such as Al Gore, go to North Korea, make an apology for what they say these two female journalists have done and then bring them home to the U.S. And this would give them some, they believe, some political credit with the U.S. One precedent for this was in 1996 when New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson went to Pyongyang to bring back Evan Hunziker, an American citizen who was detained in North Korea after swimming across the Yellow River which divides China from North Korea. So, that's the formula that people think may be repeated with these American journalists.

MONTAGNE: Now, the UN is expected to impose sanctions against North Korea in the coming days for something entirely different, for its nuclear and rocket tests. How might that complicate this case?

KUHN: Well, the UN Security Council is believed to be discussing sanctions, possibly financial or some sort of military thing where they tried to interdict ships on the high sea, and this could worsen relations and lessen the possibility that North Korea wants to bargain for these journalists. On the other hand, the North Koreans may have been preparing for sometime to continue testing missiles may be even more nuclear weapons and just use this as an excuse while pursing negotiations over the journalists through separate channels. But certainly it's not going to make things easier, I would think, if the UN proceeds with sanctions which North Korea said they would consider as an act of war.

MONTAGNE: Anthony thanks very much.

KUHN: Thank you Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking to us from Seoul, South Korea.

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