North Korea's top court convicted two American journalists and sentenced them to 12 years in labor prison Monday, intensifying the reclusive nation's confrontation with the United States.
The North's Central Court tried TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee during proceedings running from last Thursday to Monday and found them guilty of a "grave crime" against the nation, and of illegally crossing into North Korea, the country's state-run Korean Central News Agency said.
It said the court "sentenced each of them to 12 years of reform through labor." The KCNA report gave no other details.
Ling and Lee - who were working for former Vice President Al Gore's California-based Current TV - cannot appeal because they were tried in North Korea's highest court, where decisions are final.
Many analysts believe there is a good chance the two woman will be freed. They say the reporters are being used by Pyongyang as bargaining chips in its standoff with South Korea and the United States, which are pushing for U.N. sanctions to punish the North for its latest nuclear test and a barrage of missile tests.
By sentencing them to prison, North Korea has "paved the way for a political pardon and a diplomatic solution," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.
He noted that a pardon can only be issued after a conviction and that the regime's courts were not about to find the reporters innocent, which would imply they were wrongly arrested.
Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University, said the sentence - the maximum possible allowed by the North's laws - could have been a reaction to strong statements from the U.S., including threats of sanctions and putting North Korea back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
"I think this is the North's response to recent hard-line moves by the U.S.," Kim said. "But the sentence doesn't mean much because the issue will be resolved diplomatically in the end."
The circumstances surrounding the trial of the two journalists and their arrest March 17 on the China-North Korean border have been shrouded in secrecy, as is typical of the reclusive nation. The trial was not open to the public or foreign observers, including the Swedish Embassy, which looks after American interests in the absence of diplomatic relations.
The two were reporting about the trafficking of 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.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Washington was trying to confirm press reports of the sentencing.
Kelly said the U.S. was "deeply concerned" about the sentences and that officials would "engage in all possible channels" to free the women.
Gore spokeswoman Kalee Kreider said the former vice president has no comment. The South Korean government also did not comment. Alanna Zahn, a spokeswoman for the journalists' families, said the family members are not currently available for any interviews.
Another American who was tried in North Korea in 1996 was treated more leniently. Evan C. Hunziker, apparently acting on a drunken dare, swam across the Yalu River - which marks the North's border with China - and was arrested after farmers found the man, then 26, naked. He was accused of spying and detained for three months before being freed after negotiations with a special U.S. envoy.
The North Koreans wanted Hunziker to pay a $100,000 criminal fine but eventually agreed on a $5,000 payment to settle a bill for a hotel where he was detained.