In an interview with the Today Show, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said the sentence — for illegal entry and an unspecified "grave crime" — was "harsher than expected." And it may mean that Ling and Lee are the first Americans ever to enter North Korea's notoriously horrific prison system. However, some say that the sentencing is actually the first step towards the journalists' release.
Former South Korean foreign minister Han Seung-soo says, "now that they are sentenced, we can think and talk about making arrangements for their release. It is ironic but with the sentencing we now have something more tangible to negotiate about." Richardson agrees, saying that, "in previous instances in which I was involved in negotiating releases, you couldn't even start until the legal process had ended."
In fact, the twelve-year sentence may not be the actual amount of time North Korea expects the women to serve, but rather a message to the West. North Korea expert Andrei Lankov says, ""The verdict does not mean much, since they will get released. Unfortunately, right now the North Koreans want to keep tensions high, so it will take many months and perhaps a year or more before the Pyongyang authorities will decide that it's time to make some friendly gesture to Washington."
South Korean lawmaker Hong Jung-wook says, "the sentence can be seen as an indication that North Korea is now expecting a very prominent envoy to come for the negotiations over their release." This envoy could be Richardson himself, who has negotiated with North Korea before, or it could be Al Gore, head of the journalists' employer, Current TV. But Richardson told the Today Show that "talk of an envoy is premature because what first has to happen is a framework for negotiations on a potential humanitarian release." He said the US will seek a "political pardon" for the journalists. In return, North Korea may demand that an envoy visit and discuss its nuclear program. Or the government may want humanitarian aid, such as food.
In the meantime, Andrei Lankov says Ling and Lee "are very unlikely to be sent to a real prison, since there they would learn too much about things outsiders are not supposed to know. I am pretty sure that the authorities will keep them in relative comfort, in conditions far better than the average prison, but still perhaps tough for the average American." The two have become the latest in a long list of foreigners North Korea has seized over the years. Kidnap victims include a 13-year-old Japanese girl named Megumi Yokota, a South Korean businessman whom the North continues to hold as a rebuke to South Korea, and a famous South Korean film producer, Shin Sang-ok. Shin eventually escaped, but not before being forced to make a socialist version of Godzilla.
American Journalists Convicted In North Korea [Today, via MSNBC]
Reporters Get 12-Year Terms In N. Korea [CNN]
N. Korea Convicts 2 U.S. Journalists [Washington Post]
North Korea Jails US journalists [BBC News]
North Korea Sentences U.S. Journalists [Wall Street Journal]
N. Korea Sentences 2 U.S. Journalists To 12 Years Of Hard Labor [New York Times]
Why North Korea's Jailing of U.S. Journalists Isn't Shocking [Time]