North Korea Sentences American Journalists to Twelve Years

Stephen Morison, Jr.

Two American journalists who were arrested on March 17, presumably at the border between North Korea and China, have been tried and sentenced to twelve years hard labor, North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA, announced Monday. The state agency accused the women, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, of “illegal border crossing” and described their punishment as “reform through labor.”

The U.S. State Department released a statement expressing their “grave concern” and urged North Korea to release the women on “humanitarian grounds.” One of the women, Ling, is said to suffer from ulcers requiring medication, while Lee has a four-year-old daughter awaiting her return in the States.

The sentence is seen as one in a series of provocative actions the North Korea government has initiated in recent months. Other acts include the underground explosion of a nuclear bomb and the testing of long-range missiles, which have concerned former North Korean allies China and Russia, as well as the United States and Japan.

Experts have debated the rational behind the moves but have reached few conclusions, pointing out that the North Korean government is more likely to act as a result of internal pressures than external ones. The propaganda arm of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has traditionally identified the United States as the primary enemy of North Korea.

It is unclear how the reporters, who were interviewing North Korean refugees in China, north of the border with the DPRK, for Current TV, a San Francisco-based media company cofounded by Al Gore, were apprehended. It is possible, though not likely, that the journalists approached the border in the area of the Chinese Changbai Shan (Ever White Mountains) Nature Reserve and inadvertently crossed and were arrested in an area where the border was poorly marked. Although the border is not identified in places, guidebooks warn tourists to beware of alert North Korean patrols.

Prior to the trial, representatives from the Swedish Embassy in the DPRK met with the American journalists. The United States and North Korea have no diplomatic relations, and there are no American representatives in Pyongyang. Observers were not permitted at the trial.

Human rights groups and North Korean defectors are sharply critical of the North Korean labor camps, where they say malnutrition, beatings, and other abuses are common.

“They meted out a verdict somewhat harsher than I had expected. It means that North Korea doesn’t want to release them without Washington paying a price,” Lee Woo-young, a DPRK specialist at the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul, told the New York Times. "It sends a signal to Washington to become more active in negotiations.”

Stephen Morison, Jr. is a writer and teacher living in Beijing, China.