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2009/06/08 18:17 KST
(3rd LD) N. Korea sentences U.S. reporters to 12 years in labor camps

By Kim Hyun
SEOUL, June 8 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's highest court sentenced two detained U.S. journalists to 12 years in labor camps Monday for a "grave crime" and illegal entry, Pyongyang's news agency said, a heavy verdict that watchers say may extract direct action from Washington.

   The U.S. said it is "deeply concerned" and will use "all possible channels" to win the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee.

   After a trial that began Thursday, the Central Court in Pyongyang sentenced each of them to "12 years of reform through labor," the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

June 8, SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea`s Central Court sentenced two U.S. journalists -- Euna Lee (L, file photo) and Laura Ling (file photo) of U.S. media outlet Current TV -- to 12 years of labor for illegally crossing the border and committing a "grave crime," the North`s official Korean Centr

"The trial confirmed the grave crime they committed against the Korean nation and their illegal border crossing," the KCNA's English statement said. As to the grave crime, its Korean report cited "hostility toward the Korean people."

   The top court does not allow appeals. But watchers in Seoul believe the Americans will not serve the full sentence.

   The female reporters from Current TV, a San Francisco-based Internet outlet co-founded by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, were detained near the border with China by North Korean guards on March 17 while working on a story about North Korean defectors.

   Convicts sentenced to labor in North Korea are subject to hard work at farms, mines, construction sites or factories, said Cho Myung-chul, a former economics professor at Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung university who defected to the South in 1994 and is now an analyst at a Seoul think tank.

   The U.S. State Department called for their immediate release.

   "We are deeply concerned by the reported sentencing of the two American citizen journalists by North Korean authorities," spokesman Ian Kelly said in a statement.

   Kelly also said, without elaborating, that Washington is "engaged through all possible channels to secure their release."

   Watchers believe North Korea is looking for chances to open direct dialogue with the U.S. through the case. Pyongyang faces financial and diplomatic sanctions from the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council for its recent nuclear test. U.S. President Barack Obama said he is "not intending to continue a policy of rewarding provocation."

   U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted bilateral contacts are underway. She sent a letter to North Korea saying Ling and Lee didn't mean to enter North Korea and received "some responses," according to her interview with ABC television over the weekend.

   "I have taken every action that we thought would produce the result we're looking for. We think that the charges against these young women are absolutely without merit or foundation," Clinton said.

   But the top U.S. diplomat also drew a line, saying the journalists' case should not affect diplomatic moves to punish North Korea's nuclear blast.

   "We don't want this pulled into the political issues that we have with North Korea or the concerns that are being expressed in the United Nations Security Council," she said.

   The verdict was harsher than expected for "hostile" activities or espionage in North Korea. The North's criminal law says those charges usually carry a sentence between five to 10 years in labor camps, although multiple counts may add up to heavier sentences.

   Iran's court had given an eight-year sentence to Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi for espionage. She was released weeks later.

   "North Korea probably intends to keep the 'card,' rather than release them immediately, so as to connect it to bilateral political issues. It will try to pressure the U.S. into softening the harsh sanctions it is considering on Pyongyang," Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University, said.

   Clinton said the U.S. is considering putting North Korea back on the list of terrorism-sponsoring nations, from which it was removed in October last year amid progress in denuclearization.

   Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor who flew to Pyongyang to win the release of a detained U.S. citizen in 1996, recently said the conclusion of the trial is a "good sign," meaning negotiations for the journalists' release can now begin.

   Richardson obtained the release of Evan Hunziker, who swam across the river that borders China. Hunziker was set free in three months.

   The governor also successfully negotiated the release of U.S. Army helicopter pilot Bobby Hall, who was freed 13 days after his helicopter strayed into North Korea in 1994. The two cases did not involve trials.

   Meanwhile, North Korea has kept mum about a South Korean citizen it has been holding since March 30. The Hyundai Asan Corp. employee, known only by his family name of Yu, was detained at a joint industrial park in the North's border town of Kaesong for criticizing the North's political system and trying to incite the defection of a local female worker.

   Seoul will seek to negotiate Yu's release at government-level talks set for Thursday at the joint park.