US journalists get 12 years in North Korean labour camp


Seoul : Two US journalists were sentenced Monday to 12 years in a North Korean labour camp after being found guilty of a “grave crime” and illegal entry into the country, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.

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The Central Court in Pyongyang, North Korea’s highest court, passed the sentence after putting Chinese-American Laura Ling and Korean-American Euna Lee on trial from Thursday to Monday, KCNA said.

Their sentencing came as the Stalinist state faces international criticism over its nuclear test last month and missile launches.

“The trial confirmed the grave crime they committed against the Korean nation and their illegal border crossing and sentenced each of them to 12 years of reform through labour,” the agency said.

It did not give specifics about what the grave crime was but the state-run media had earlier accused them of “hostile acts” against the country.

North Korean observers said the guilty verdict was expected but had said they faced up to 10 years of forced labour, so Monday’s sentence was harsher than expected.

Lee and Ling were arrested March 17 at the Chinese-North Korean border, where they were working on a story for the online broadcaster Current TV, which was co-founded by former US vice president Al Gore.

They were reportedly researching a story on North Korean refugees at the Tumen River separating the two countries. The details of their arrest by North Korean border guards remained unclear.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had earlier called the charges baseless.

“We think that the charges against these young women are absolutely without merit or foundation,” she said Sunday ahead of the sentencing in an interview with the US television network ABC.

ABC News reported that Clinton sent a letter to North Korea, apologising on behalf of the journalists for crossing into its territory and appealed for their release.

Clinton expressed concern that the journalists could become political pawns in the international debate over North Korea’s nuclear tests.

“Clearly, 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. “This is separate. It is a humanitarian issue and the girls should be let go.”

North Korean observers have speculated that the regime in Pyongyang wants to use the detained journalists as a way to win concessions in potential negotiations with the US.

The US at the moment is debating with other UN Security Council members on how to punish North Korea for its May 25 nuclear test, which was internationally condemned along with the initial test in 2006.

US efforts to win Lee and Ling’s release have so far failed. Washington does not have formal diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.