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US journalists get 12 years in North Korean labour camp

Women convicted of 'hostile acts' become pawns in diplomatic game

Two American journalists accused of illegally entering North Korea have been sentenced to 12 years' hard labour, dramatically increasing their market value in what US negotiators described as a "high-stakes diplomatic poker game" over the reclusive state's burgeoning nuclear programme.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee were convicted of "hostile acts" by Pyongyang's highest court yesterday, following a five-day trial in which they were found to have crossed the country's northern border with China without permission.

"The trial confirmed the grave crime committed against the Korean nation and their illegal border crossing," said the state-run KCNA news agency, adding that they would serve 12 years' "reform through labour".

Both women, who work for a San Francisco-based cable TV company, have been kept in solitary confinement since 17 March, when they were picked up by North Korean troops near a bridge over the Tumen river, which separates the country from its neighbour and closest ally.

Ms Ling and Ms Lee's families told reporters last week that they were "very, very scared" and had been "crying constantly". Their trial took place behind closed doors, and they are unlikely to have been granted proper legal representation. North Korean law now requires them to be transferred to a labour camp in 10 days.

The verdict prompted the US government to immediately call for their release on "humanitarian" grounds. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the charges were "baseless", and is now likely to send an envoy to Pyongyang to seek their release.

Candidates for that job include Al Gore, who founded their employer, Current TV (but has so far diplomatically avoided almost every opportunity to speak publicly about their fate) and Bill Richardson, the Governor of New Mexico who negotiated the release of US citizens from Pyongyang in the 1990s.

"The North Koreans are raising the stakes. This is a high-stakes poker game," Mr Richardson told NBC's Today programme. "The sentence is harsh, and I feel deeply for the families of these women [but] it does mean the legal process has ended. That's good, because in previous instances where I was involved in negotiating releases, you couldn't even start until the legal process had ended."

Talks on Ms Ling and Ms Lee's future could take months, and are likely to see the impoverished North Korean regime demand an end to international trade sanctions. In return for the "humanitarian" pardon of the reporters, they are also likely to seek some sort of humanitarian aid from the US. Pyongyang's other ambition is for Barack Obama to withdraw threats to send US warships to the region, and make good on his mooted willingness to hold diplomatic talks with its elderly leader, Kim Jong-Il, over the nuclear ambitions that saw it carry out a series of missile launches last month.

The fate of Ms Ling and Ms Lee is attracting growing attention. Both women, who were experienced documentary makers, have husbands at home. Ms Lee also has a four-year-old daughter.

They had travelled to the Jilin Province in Manchuria to make a film about the sex trafficking trade between North Korea and China. The circumstances surrounding their arrest, apparently in the early hours of the morning, remain unclear.

The border isn't clearly marked, and criss-crosses the Tumen river, leading some reports to speculate that they accidentally wandered into Korean territory.

Starvation sentence: North Korea's prisons

*When they are transferred to the labour camp, Laura Ling and Euna Lee will encounter the most hellish prison regime on the planet. So harsh are conditions that it is believed that up to a quarter of detainees die every year.

*Rations are so meagre that those who survive exist in "deliberately contrived semi-starvation", according to a report.

*Many also die in experiments involving biological weapons.

*Children work as slave labourers alongside their parents.