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North Korea Convicts 2 U.S. Journalists
"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," said Hong Jung-wook, a lawmaker from South Korea's ruling party.
In appearances last week on U.S. television, the families of the women broke months of silence and offered public apologies to the North Korean government for whatever acts the journalists may have committed.
"If at any point the girls went into North Korea, then we apologize on their behalf," said Lisa Ling, who noted that she had recently received a telephone call from her sister Laura in Pyongyang and that she sounded "extremely scared."
Laura Ling suffers from an ulcer, her sister said. Lee has a 4-year-old daughter.
Both women have been allowed to telephone their families in the United States, which is highly unusual in a state that seals away political prisoners in concentration camps, sometimes for life, without any contact with relatives.
Ling and Lee have been visited three times by the Swedish ambassador, and have been allowed to send and receive letters through him. The United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea.
The women have told their families that they have been treated "fairly" while in North Korea.
Despite the sentence to "reform through labor," analysts said that Ling and Lee would probably not be sent to a labor camp where they would work with other North Korean prisoners.
There are believed to be about 200,000 political prisoners in North Korean camps, where former inmates say conditions are often brutal, hunger is widespread and attempts to escape usually result in a public execution.
"They 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," said Lankov, who has written several books about North Korea and studied there as a student from what was then the Soviet Union. "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."
Special correspondent Stella Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.