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(photo credit: AP)
The sentencing of two American journalists to 12 years in a North Korean labor prison sets the stage for possible negotiations with the reclusive nation for their release - perhaps involving an envoy from the United States.
A joint statement by the family of the two reporters - Laura Ling and Euna Lee - expressed the hope that the governments of the United States and North Korea "can come to an agreement that will result in (their) release."
"We ask the government of North Korea to show compassion and grant Laura and Euna clemency," said the statement released Monday by the family's spokeswoman, Alanna Zahn.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who helped win the release of Americans from North Korea in the 1990s, said he was "ready to do anything" the Obama administration asked. Another possible negotiator, if the US government approved, is former Vice President Al Gore, who founded the TV venture that both reporters work for.
A senior Obama administration official said Richardson and Gore had been in contact with the White House and State Department about potential next steps, including possibly sending an envoy to try to negotiate the release of Lee, 36, and Ling, 32, both of whom work for Gore's Current TV.
But the official stressed that no decisions had been made on how to proceed and said neither Gore nor Richardson had been asked to go. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the diplomatic sensitivity of the situation.
Asked Monday if Washington will send an envoy to the North, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Obama administration is "pursuing every possible approach that we can consider in order to persuade the North Koreans to release them and send these young women home."
She stressed that the reporters' case and Washington's efforts to punish North Korea for its recent nuclear test are "entirely separate matters."
"We think the imprisonment, trial and sentencing of Laura and Euna should be viewed as a humanitarian matter," Clinton said. "We hope that the North Koreans will grant clemency and deport them."
The isolated North is probably less interested in having the women sent to its gulag, where poorly fed inmates often do backbreaking work in factories, coal mines and rice paddies.
Instead, Pyongyang will likely try to use them as bargaining chips in an increasingly tense standoff with the US over the North's recent nuclear and missile tests.
President Barack Obama "is deeply concerned by the reported sentencing of the two American citizen journalists by North Korean authorities, and we are engaged through all possible channels to secure their release," said deputy White House spokesman William Burton.
Richardson, who also traveled to North Korea in 2007 to bring back the remains of Americans killed in the Korean War, said the journalists were part of a "high-stakes poker game" North Korea is playing. Now that the legal process has been completed, he said he thinks talks for their release can begin, with some kind of a political pardon as a goal.
"In previous instances where I was involved in negotiating, you could not get this started until the legal process had ended," he said on NBC's "Today" show.
He said the sentence was harsher than expected but added that the fact that espionage was not mentioned was a good sign.
He said North Korea so far has not, at least publicly, tried to tie this incident to differences with Washington over its nuclear program and the recent series of missile tests that it has conducted. He also said he has not seen particularly bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang on the issue of the two women.
For several days, rumors have been swirling that Gore would fly to North Korea to negotiate the reporters' release. But Gore has not commented on a possible trip and has stayed silent about the case in general.
Victor Cha, who served as a senior Asia adviser on former President George W. Bush's National Security Council, said a high-level envoy, such as Gore, should be sent to negotiate the release of the Americans.
"North Koreans care a great deal about public face, and sending someone of Gore's stature would be an eminently credible humanitarian mission," he said.
North Korea wants to be treated like a legitimate nuclear state and hopes to draw Washington into direct negotiations about normalizing relations. Washington has refused to endorse such a status for an unpredictable nation with a history of terrorism, ripping up agreements and sharing its nuclear know-how with nations hostile to America.
Pyongyang is believed to be preparing another long-range missile test at a new launchpad. On Monday, North Korea warned fishing boats to stay away from the east coast, Japan's coast guard said, feeding concerns that more missile tests are being planned.
The U.N. has also been debating a new resolution to punish the North for its second nuclear test May 25. Pyongyang followed the test with a barrage of missile launches.
The case gives the two sides an excuse to talk, with the U.S. possibly sending a special envoy, said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University.
"I think the North is going to try to use the reporters to facilitate relations with the U.S.," said Kim, adding that he didn't think the women would be mistreated and would even be kept separate from North Korean inmates.
"The sentence doesn't mean much because the issue will be resolved diplomatically in the end," Kim said.
The journalists were arrested March 17 near the China-North Korea border, and it's unclear whether they tried to sneak into the North or if aggressive border guards crossed into Chinese territory and grabbed them, as has happened before. A cameraman and their local guide escaped.
Ling and Lee were reporting about the trafficking of women at the time of their arrest.
Their family's statement said "if they wandered across the border without permission, we apologize on their behalf."
It also expressed concern about the women's health, noting that Ling has a serious medical condition, a reference to her ulcer, while Lee's 4-year-old daughter is showing "signs of anguish over the absence of her mother."
The North accused the reporters of unspecified "hostile acts" and illegally entering the country, but the formal charges against them were unclear. Their trial began Thursday and foreigners weren't allowed to observe the proceedings.
The North's official news agency said Monday the women committed a "grave crime" and would be sentenced to 12 years of "reform through labor."