U.S. pleads mercy for journalists jailed in North Korea

June 10, 2009

SEOUL (AFP) – U.S. leaders and family members urged North Korea to show mercy to two jailed American reporters, as Washington tried to separate their plight from efforts to punish Pyongyang for its nuclear test.

The sentence on the TV reporters comes as Washington presses other UN Security Council members to approve a tough new resolution sanctioning the communist state for its May 25 test.
The North's Central Court Monday sentenced Laura Ling and Euna Lee to 12 years of “reform through labor” for what state media called an illegal border crossing and an unspecified “grave crime.”
Border guards detained them on March 17 along the frontier with China while they were researching a story about refugees fleeing the North.
Analysts believe Pyongyang will use them as bargaining chips in its attempts to open direct talks with Washington.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appealed Monday for clemency.
She said President Barack Obama's administration was “engaged in all possible ways through every possible channel to secure their release.”
Like others in the administration, Clinton urged the North to treat the women's case as separate from the Security Council debate.
“We think the imprisonment, trial and sentencing of Laura and Euna should be viewed as a humanitarian matter. We hope that the North Koreans will grant clemency and deport them,” she added.
Ling and Lee's families in a joint statement apologized on their behalf if the reporters accidentally strayed across the border, and asked for “compassion.”
The families said they were “shocked and devastated” by the sentences.
“We are very concerned about their mental state and well-being,” the statement said, adding that Ling suffers from an ulcer and Lee's four year-old daughter “is displaying signs of anguish over the absence of her mother.”
The administration appeared to be contemplating trouble-shooting roles for former vice president Al Gore or New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.
The State Department last week did not rule out intervention by Gore, who co-founded the women's employers Current TV.
Richardson, who in the 1990s negotiated the release of two Americans in North Korea, said the administration had contacted him for advice in the case.
Richardson predicted negotiations for their release would now begin in what he called a “high stakes poker game.”
But he said any talk of a U.S. envoy for the case was premature because a framework for talks on a humanitarian release had first to be established.
A South Korean expert in the North's legal system, however, advised the U.S. to move quickly.
Under the penal code, the women are supposed to be transferred to prison within 10 days of the sentence, said Choi Eun-Suk, of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University..
“It would be better for the U.S. to get something done for their release before they are actually sent to prison,” Choi told AFP.
In what Obama has called “extraordinarily provocative” actions over the past two months, the North has test-fired a long-range rocket, detonated a nuclear weapon underground, fired short-range missiles, renounced the armistice on the Korean peninsula and threatened possible attacks on South Korea,
U.S. and South Korean officials say it also seems to be preparing another long-range missile test.
Analysts say ailing leader Kim Jong-Il, 67, is bolstering his authority with the powerful military and party cadres as he prepares his youngest son for an eventual takeover.
They say the North wants to establish U.S. ties to eliminate the perceived military threat from Washington and to ease sanctions -- but only on the basis that it is accepted as a nuclear-armed state.
US Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said Monday the succession issue added a new element of danger.
“He (Kim) had a stroke last summer and recently designated his son as his successor,” Blair said.
“So any time you have a combination of this behaviour -- doing provocative things in order to excite a response -- plus succession questions, you have a potentially dangerous mixture,” he said.
The North said Tuesday it would use its nuclear weapons both to defend itself and to carry out a reprisal for any attack.
The nuclear deterrent would be a strong tool to protect regional peace and carry out a “just retaliatory strike” which would be “merciless” on those who infringe on its dignity and sovereignty, said the cabinet newspaper Minju Josun.
Photo: North Korea has sentenced US journalists Euna Lee (L) and Laura Ling to 12 years in a labour camp for illegal entry and an unspecified ""grave crime,"" further fuelling tension with Washington. (AFP/YONHAP/File)