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North Korea Convicts 2 U.S. Journalists

Two U.S. journalists, arrested in North Korea, have been found guilty of crimes against the communist nation. Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp.

The long prison term given the journalists adds a new complication.

"We are 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," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said early Monday.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Sunday that the charges against "these young women are absolutely without merit or foundation."

The verdict cannot be appealed and is final, officials in Seoul have said.

But there is a widespread expectation, at least in South Korea, that the journalists will be released when the North Korean government decides the time is right to talk again to the United States.

In the past, North Korea has released Americans who have entered the country illegally. The government also has a history of brinkmanship, turning confrontation and bluster into negotiations that reward it with food, fuel and other concessions.

"The verdict does not mean much, since they will get released," said Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea who teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. "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."

Other North Korean observers were more hopeful of a quicker resolution.

"Now that they are sentenced, we can think and talk about making arrangements for their release," said Han Seung-soo, a former South Korean foreign minister. "It is ironic but with the sentencing we now have something more tangible to negotiate about."

Ling and Lee were working for Current TV, a cable and Web network co-founded by former vice president Al Gore, when they were detained March 17 by North Korean soldiers along the border with China. The reporters were working on a story about North Koreans who flee the country, but the circumstances of their arrest are not clear.

The State Department last week did not rule out the possibility that Gore may fly to North Korea to negotiate the reporters' release. A spokeswomen for Gore contacted by the Associated Press declined to comment.

Ten years ago, Bill Richardson, then a member of Congress and now governor of New Mexico, traveled to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of an American who got drunk and swam across a river into North Korea. Richardson, too, said last week that he did not expect negotiations to begin for the journalists' release until after their trial ended.

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