WASHINGTON—Two U.S. journalists sentenced to 12 years' hard labor for allegedly crossing into North Korea illegally will likely be held in a special detention center because they are foreigners and could get an early release, experts say.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced after a five-day trial in Pyongyang's Central Court from which observers were barred.
The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said North Korea’s top court sentenced “each of them to 12 years of reform through labor.”
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly voiced concern over the sentencing and said Washington was “engaged through all possible channels to secure their release.”
Fred Ikle, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) here, said it would suit Pyongyang’s best interests to keep the journalists in good health to use them as a bargaining chip.
“They may put them in a separate place and…keep them alive to exert further pressure,” Ilke said.
Suzanne Sholte, chairman of the nonprofit North Korea Freedom Coalition, said foreign prisoners in North Korea are often held in separate facilities.
“I think they would treat them as they have other abductees. I consider them abductees because I think they were abducted out of China,” Sholte said.
“We know that in the cases of the Japanese and South Korean abductees—they weren’t kept in political prisoner camps, they were kept in a special facility for abductees from other countries."
David Hawk, author of Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps, said that while the two journalists might be forced into a labor camp, they would likely be given preferential treatment.
“My guess is that…it would be a facility for reeducation through labor…The nearest equivalent in the American penal system would be a felony-level penitentiary,” Hawk said.
“They will obviously get special treatment because they are foreigners. They probably will have to do some labor, as opposed to just sitting in a cell all day long. They will be adequately fed,” he said.
North Korean guards detained Ling and Lee, who work for former U.S. vice president Al Gore's San Francisco-based Current TV, near the country's border with China on March 17.
They had been reporting on North Korean immigrants in China.
KCNA said they had been arrested on charges of illegally entering the country with the intent to commit "hostile acts.”
U.S. officials are working to secure the release of the women through Sweden because Washington has no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, and tensions are running high.
In the last two months, Pyongyang has conducted a nuclear weapons test, launched six short-range missiles, scrapped international disarmament negotiations, and possibly restarted its plutonium reprocessing plant.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week that the regime appears to be preparing the launch of a long-range missile.
The sentencing may have been carefully timed to allow Pyongyang more negotiating room in dealings with Washington, experts say.
North Korea will likely demand an apology from the U.S. government for the acts of its citizens, Hawk said.
“They want an apology from the U.S. government for the 'hostile acts' of these American citizens. That’s North Korean code language…The hostile acts are never defined,” he said.
Sholte said the sentencing was “absolutely” a move to use the journalists as a negotiating tool to pursue direct talks with Washington.
“They’re just upping the ante to force our hand. North Korea is wholeheartedly pursuing their nuclear program, and they want to be dealt with one-on-one with the U.S.,” Sholte said.
“This is part of their plan. They want to be seen as a nuclear power, they want to be part of the nuclear club, and they want to be seen and dealt with by the U.S. on an equal footing with some of the other countries that we are dealing with."
‘No reform element’
Prisoners of North Korea’s labor reform camps are held in notoriously grim conditions that experts have compared to Nazi concentration camps and Soviet Gulags.
Prisoners are often abducted and thrown into camps without trials and forced to perform intense physical labor in mines, state farms, and factories for long hours, often leading to death from exhaustion and malnutrition.
“These reform through labor facilities—there is no reform element. That’s a joke, it’s punishment. It’s a very strict regime in very difficult conditions. People work long and hard and are not given adequate food for the kind of labor they are compelled to do,” Hawk said.
“There are no legal proceedings. Those people are just abducted and forcibly disappeared and deposited in these labor camps without any judicial process whatsoever and with no fixed term sentence,” he said.
Sholte called the facilities “death camps.”
“They have cramped conditions, they’re filthy…People are literally worked to death,” she said.
Written for the Web by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.