SEOUL, South Korea – Prisoners spend long days toiling in rice paddies and factories. Survivors say beatings are frequent, hunger is constant and clothing scarce in the freezing winter.
But experts said that based on past experiences the two American journalists sentenced to 12 years in a North Korean labor prison probably won't see this side of the nation's notoriously brutal gulag. The reporters — Laura Ling and Euna Lee — will likely be kept apart from North Korean inmates as negotiators try to cut a deal for their release.
"I don't think the reporters will do hard labor. It's simply not in the North Koreans' interests to make them go through that," Roh Jeong-ho, director of the Center for Korean Legal Studies at Columbia Law School in New York, said Tuesday.
Roh agreed with several other analysts who have said Pyongyang will likely use the women to maximize its leverage in talks with Washington. Discussions have already begun about who would represent the U.S. as an envoy, with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former Vice President Al Gore named as possibilities.
"We are working, as I said yesterday, in every way open to us to persuade the North Korean government to release the two journalists on a humanitarian basis and we are going to continue to pursue every possible avenue," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday.
The reporters were arrested on the China-North Korea border three months ago while reporting on the trafficking of women for Gore's Current TV. Their five-day trial ended Monday when they were sentenced 12 years of "reform through labor."
The sentencing came as North Korea's relations with the rest of the world have been roiled by the unpredictable nation's second nuclear test and a barrage of missile launches. Pyongyang appears to be preparing to launch another long-range missile, and almost daily the hard-line leadership issues a stream of threats.
On Tuesday, Pyongyang's news agency warned that its nuclear weapons would be used for defense as well as for a "merciless offensive." It appeared to be the first time that North Korea referred to its nuclear arsenal as "offensive" in nature.
The mysterious nation stayed quiet about the journalists' fate Tuesday, and no information was provided about where they would be imprisoned.
One former North Korean official who defected to the South said the reporters would not be sent to an ordinary labor prison because the government wouldn't want the foreigners to witness the severe human rights violations at such places.
The Americans would likely be sent to a prison in Sariwon, about 58 kilometers (36 miles) south of Pyongyang, said the defector, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of his job. The Sariwon prison usually houses purged party members, he said.
The facility was built in the early 1990s as a "showcase" prison for international human rights groups doing inspection tours. The prison's architecture is better than ordinary government buildings, and it has televisions, refrigerators and beds in each room, the former official said.
Although foreign military prisoners have reported harsh conditions and abuse, some of the most recent civilian prisoners in North Korea have had no major complaints.
American Evan C. Hunziker was accused of spying and detained for three months in 1996 after he swam across the Yalu River, which marks the border with China, apparently on a drunken dare. After his release, he said little about the experience, but his father said he was treated well but thought the food was lousy. He was kept in a hotel and the North Koreans collected a $5,000 fee for the room.
Retired Japanese journalist Takashi Sugishima was arrested in Pyongyang in 1999 and accused of spying — an allegation he denied. He said he wasn't mistreated during the two years he spent in a cozy cell in a mountain facility and was served three hot meals a day.
The worst North Korean prisons are part of a network of five large political labor camps where people accused of being spies, defectors and dissidents get locked away. The U.S. State Department estimates the camps hold a total of between 150,000 to 200,000 inmates.
Lee Ok-suk, 52, a North Korean defector, said she was imprisoned from 1999 to 2001 in a more moderate labor camp for petty criminals in the east coast city of Hamhung. The woman, jailed for her Christian beliefs, said she suffered constant beatings, insufficient clothing and meager food rations that caused her to lose nearly 45 pounds (20 kilograms).
She said the men built textile machines, while the women grew corn, rice and other grains. Many died of abuse and malnutrition, she said. North Korea is believed to have about eight to nine such labor camps.
"We were not human beings there," said Lee, who defected to the South in 2006. "We were being treated worse than dogs."