SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea convicted two American journalists and sentenced them Monday to 12 years of hard labor for crossing into its territory, intensifying the reclusive nation's confrontation with the United States.
The Obama administration said it would pursue "all possible channels" to win the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's San Francisco-based Current TV media venture.
There are fears Pyongyang is using the women as bargaining chips as the U.N. debates a new resolution to punish the country for its defiant May 25 atomic test and as North Korea seeks to draw Washington into direct negotiations.
Washington's former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson called the sentencing part of "a high-stakes poker game" being played by North Korea. He said on NBC's Today show that he thinks negotiations for their "humanitarian release" can begin now that the legal process has been completed. Other South Korean analysts also said they expect the two to be freed following negotiations.
The journalists were found guilty of committing a "grave crime" against North Korea and of illegally entering the country, North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency said.
North Korean guards arrested Ling and Lee near the China-North Korean border on March 17. The two were reporting about the trafficking of North Korean women at the time of their arrest, and it's unclear if they strayed into the North or were grabbed by aggressive border guards who crossed into China. A cameraman and their local guide escaped.
The Central Court in Pyongyang sentenced each to 12 years of "reform through labor" in a North Korean prison after a five-day trial, KCNA said in a terse, two-line report that provided no further details. A Korean-language version said they were convicted of "hostility toward the Korean people."
The ruling — nearly three months after their arrest on March 17 — comes amid soaring tensions fueled by North Korea's nuclear test last month and signs it is preparing for a long-range missile test. On Monday, North Korea warned fishing boats to stay away from the east coast, Japan's coast guard said, raising concerns more missile tests are being planned.
Over the weekend, President Obama used strong language on North Korea's nuclear stance and said his administration did not intend "to continue a policy of rewarding provocation."
Verdicts issued by North Korea's highest court are final and cannot be appealed, said Choi Eun-suk, a North Korean law expert at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at South Korea's Kyungnam University. He said North Korea's penal code calls for transferring them to prison within 10 days.
The United States, which does not have diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, was "deeply concerned" about the reported verdict, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in Washington. He said officials would "engage in all possible channels" to win the reporters' release.
At the White House on Monday, deputy spokesman William Burton said in a statement: "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."
The families of Lee, 36, and Ling, 32 had no immediate comment, spokeswoman Alanna Zahn said from New York. Gore also had no comment, spokeswoman Kalee Kreider said.
Lee is Korean-American and speaks Korean, but it is not clear how well. She lives in California with her husband and 4-year-old daughter Hannah. Ling is Chinese-American and a native of California. Her sister is National Geographic "Explorer" TV journalist Lisa Ling.
Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University, said the 12-year sentence — the maximum allowed under North Korean law — may have been a reaction to recent "hard-line" threats by the U.S., including possible sanctions and putting North Korea back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
But he predicted the journalists' eventual release following diplomatic negotiations.
"The sentence doesn't mean much because the issue will be resolved diplomatically in the end," Kim said.
Just weeks after arresting the women, North Korea launched a multistage rocket over Japan in defiance of international calls for restraint. The U.S. and others called the launch a cover for a long-range missile test, and the U.N. Security Council condemned the move.
The U.N. censure enraged Pyongyang. North Korea abandoned nuclear disarmament talks, threatened to restart its atomic program and vowed to conduct nuclear and long-range missile tests if the Security Council failed to apologize.
The North followed through with its threat and staged its second-ever underground nuclear test. U.S. officials say the North appears to be preparing another long-range missile test at a west coast launch pad.
Some analysts called the arrest of the Americans a timely "bonanza" for Pyongyang as the impoverished regime prepares to negotiate for aid and other concessions to resolve the tense standoff over its nuclear defiance.
"North Korea refused to release them ahead of a court ruling because such a move could be seen as capitulating to the United States," said Hajime Izumi, professor of international relations and an expert on North Korea at the University of Shizuoka in Japan.
But now, "North Korea may release them on humanitarian grounds and demand the U.S. provide humanitarian aid in return," he said. "North Korea will certainly use the reporters as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the United States."
Their release could come through a post-negotiation political pardon, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.
The sentence is "a terrible shock for all those who have repeatedly insisted on their innocence," Reporters Without Borders said in a statement, noting that North Korea is ranked as Asia's worst country for press freedom.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists urged South Korea, Japan, Russia and the U.S., the five countries involved in the stalled disarmament talks with North Korea, to work for the journalists' release."
The sentencing comes a month after Iran released Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, who had been sentenced to eight years in prison for on a charge of spying for the United States. An appeals court reduced that to a two-year suspended sentence and she was freed May 11.
Little is known about prison conditions in North Korea. But Rev. Chun Ki-won, a South Korean missionary who helped arrange the journalists' trip to China, said inmates in North Korean labor camps frequently face beatings and other inhumane treatment while being forced to engage in harsh labor such as logging and construction work.
Chun, however, predicted the North would send the journalists to a labor camp.