SEOUL | North Korea’s sentencing of two American journalists to 12 years of “reform” through hard labor draws attention to one of the world’s most unforgiving penal systems, even though analysts say it is unlikely the two will serve time in a gulag.
Instead Euna Lee and Laura Ling were expected to become negotiating pawns as the North tests the Obama administration by steadily escalating tensions with the United States.
Ms. Lee and Ms. Ling, who were captured in March while reporting a story on the North Korean-Chinese border about trafficking of North Korean women, were sentenced Monday after a five-day trial.
The Obama administration struggled to keep its efforts to free the reporters separate from efforts to resolve a nuclear and missile dispute with the North.
The White House and the State Department said they are using “all possible channels” to persuade the North Koreans to release the women “on humanitarian grounds.” They insisted the matter had nothing to do with a resolution being negotiated at the United Nations that would impose sanctions on the North for conducting a nuclear test late last month.
“We think [the reporters] should be examined on a humanitarian background. That’s totally separate from what we are trying to do up in New York,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters.
The sentence comes amid multiple attempts by North Korea to raise tensions in its dealings with Washington. In addition to last month’s nuclear test, it is reportedly preparing to conduct its second test of a long-range rocket this year.
Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University, said authorities have little incentive to place the reporters in the nation’s gulag system.
“They will never be sent to a real prison camp, as they would see a lot of things an outsider is not meant to see,” Mr. Lankov said. “I think they will be kept in special facilities which would be quite comfortable for a North Korean farmer — but which may not be very comfortable for a suburban American.”
A brief dispatch by North Korea’s official news agency Monday said the reporters have been convicted of “hostility toward the Korean people” and were sentenced to “reform through labor.”
Choi Jong-kun, an international relations specialist at Yonsei University, said it was a bad time for Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee to be in North Korea.
“I used to think the North Koreans would use this situation and open up negotiations with the U.S., but ever since it happened, no positive signals have come out,” Mr. Choi said.
Had the two been North Korean citizens instead of Americans, their situation would have been far more bleak.
Conditions for natives who fall under North Korean justice are harsh, especially if their crimes involve criticism of leader Kim Jong-il.
Human rights groups, basing their estimates on defector testimonies, believe that about 200,000 prisoners are in North Koreas gulag system. Many are family members imprisoned for the crimes of their relatives, especially when the crimes are political.
Shin Dong-hyuk, who escaped from the gulag in 2005, told foreign reporters in Seoul of life inside the secretive “Total Control Camp 14.”
There, he said, guards routinely mutilated prisoners — including children — with hooks and knives for mistakes or rule infractions.
Americans held by Pyongyang in recent years have fared better.
In 1994, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot was captured after he accidentally overflew the border. In 1996, a drunken American civilian was captured while swimming in the Yalu River on the North Korean/Chinese border. Both were freed, without suffering harsh treatment, after diplomatic interventions by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was a congressman at the time.
• Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report in Washington.