US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has appealed for North Korea to show clemency and deport two US journalists sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp, calling it a humanitarian case.
Clinton also said yesterday that President Barack Obama's administration is "engaged in all possible ways through every possible channel to secure their release" as it appears to contemplate trouble-shooting roles for high-profile politicians.
Like others in the administration, Clinton urged North Korea to treat the women's case as separate from UN Security Council debate over how to respond to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons test on May 25.
"We view these as entirely separate matters," Clinton told reporters after a North Korean court sentenced journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee to 12 years in a labor camp for an illegal border crossing and an unspecified "grave crime."
"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," Clinton added.
The chief US diplomat, speaking during a meeting with Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda, called for their "immediate release on humanitarian grounds," but did not explain why they should be freed on those grounds.
Ling and Lee were detained by North Korean border guards on March 17 along the frozen Tumen River, which marks the North's border with China, while researching a story on refugees fleeing the hardline communist state.
The pair, both aged in their 30s, were on reporting assignment for San Francisco-based Current TV, a company co-founded by former vice president Al Gore.
In their first public remarks since the punishment was announced, Ling and Lee's families issued a joint statement apologized on their behalf if the reporters accidentally strayed across the border, and asked North Korea for "compassion."
The families said they were "shocked and devastated" by the harsh sentences.
"We are very concerned about their mental state and well-being," the statement read.
"We ask the government of North Korea to show compassion and grant Laura and Euna clemency and allow them to return home to their families."
Ling suffered from an ulcer, and Lee's four year-old daughter "is displaying signs of anguish over the absence of her mother," it said.
"We believe that the three months they have already spent under arrest with little communication with their families is long enough."
The administration appears to be contemplating trouble-shooting roles for Gore and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.
The State Department last week did not rule out possible intervention by Gore.
Richardson, a former US ambassador to the United Nations who in the past negotiated the release of Americans in North Korea, said the administration had contacted him for advice in the case.
He also said he had spoken to the women's families.
Interviewed on NBC's Today Show, Richardson predicted the political negotiations for their release would now begin in what he called a "high stakes poker game."
But he said that any talk of a US envoy for the case was "premature" because a framework for talks on a potential humanitarian release had to first be established.
"What we would try to seek would be some kind of a political pardon, some kind of a respite from the legal proceedings," Richardson said.
In 1996, then-US congressman Richardson negotiated the release of Evan Hunziker, who had been detained for three months on suspicion of spying after swimming the Yalu border river.
In 1994, Richardson also negotiated the release of the surviving pilot of a US Army helicopter downed in North Korea, along with the body of his dead co-pilot.
He said it is "good news" that Pyongyang had not charged the two women with espionage and that it seems to separate their cases from political differences with Washington.
But Clinton said: "Obviously we are deeply concerned about the length of the sentence and the fact that this trial was conducted totally in secret with no observers."
White House spokesman Bill Burton said "the president is deeply concerned" by the sentencing.