North Korea sentences U.S. journalists to 12 years’ labor

New York, June 8, 2009–International pressure from all countries involved in the Six Party Talks should be leveraged to ensure the release of U.S. journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling after a North Korean court sentenced them today to 12 years hard labor, the Committee to Protect Journalists said. The countries in the talks are North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States.

The Central Court of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) found the two San Francisco-based Current TV journalists guilty of entering the country illegally and carrying out “hostile acts” on March 17, when border guards detained them near the Tumen River, which forms the border between North Korea and China, according to international news reports. They had been reporting on the conditions of Korean refugees in China. The trial, held behind closed doors, ran from Thursday to Monday, according to the news reports. The Central Court is the highest in North Korea; there are no others in which to file an appeal.

“It is critical that the international community pressure North Korea to overturn this harsh and unwarranted sentence, which clearly stems from the security situation on the Korean Peninsula,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Reporting on a humanitarian situation is not a hostile or criminal act. These two journalists should be allowed to return home immediately.”

The results of the trial–which was not open to international observers and not reported by North Korean media–have been anxiously anticipated by the journalists’ supporters. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told The Associated Press: “We plan to explore all possible channels.” He added, “As we have all along, we call on the North Korean authorities to release the two young ladies.

The journalists’ family members, who made televised pleas for their release last week, apologized in case the women had crossed the border. Lee and Ling told family members before leaving the United States for China that they did not intend to enter North Korea. Current TV producer Mitchell Koss accompanied the women, along with a driver, but they were not detained. Neither Koss, who has since returned to the United States, nor other Current TV staffers have commented publicly on the case.

The journalists have been held in a government guest house outside of Pyongyang, and have been allowed contact with their families and the Swedish government, who say they have not been physically mistreated.