By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
SEOUL, June 16 -- North Korea said Tuesday that two American journalists it has sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp admitted at their trial that they entered the country illegally to vilify the North's human rights record.
It was the first explanation from the government of Kim Jong Il about why Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were detained in March while working on a story about North Koreans who flee to China, were given sentences last week that many outsiders have described as unusually harsh.
North Korea released its account of the closed trial just hours before President Obama met at the White House with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to discuss how to deal with provocations from the North.
The two journalists were arrested on the North Korean side of the Tumen River after entering the country illegally from China, said the statement, which was released by the official Korean Central News Agency.
"We have just entered North Korean territory without permission," a narrator said on a video found in the reporters' possession, the statement said.
Two others in the reporting team that crossed the river, producer Mitch Koss and a Korean Chinese guide, managed to flee, the statement said.
There have been no definitive independent accounts of where the journalists were when they were detained. Members of their families in the United States have apologized on their behalf if the two did cross into North Korea. The U.S. government has asked that the women be released immediately on humanitarian grounds.
But North Korea's statement made it clear that the journalists had been convicted of much more than just wandering across a border.
"At the trial, the accused admitted that what they did were criminal acts, prompted by a political motive to isolate and stifle the socialist system of North Korea, by faking moving images aimed at falsifying its human rights performance and hurling slanders and calumnies at it," the statement said.
North Korea is widely regarded as having one of the worst human rights records in the world. A U.N. human rights report this year describes the North as a place where ordinary people "live in fear and are pressed to inform on each other."
In a statement Tuesday night, Ling and Lee's families said: "We appreciate that the Government of North Korea released the account of the charges against Laura and Euna. Whatever those charges to which they have confessed, we are sorry and know that they are as well. We desperately hope that the Government of North Korea will show compassion and allow Laura and Euna to come home to their families."
The detention and sentencing of the two journalists have become part of a complex political and military crisis this year on the Korean Peninsula, as North Korea has launched missiles, detonated a nuclear bomb, threatened war against its southern neighbor and vowed never to give up nuclear weapons.
The secretive communist state, which has annoyed even historical allies China and Russia, is thought to be in the throes of succession, as the country's ailing leader prepares to hand off power to his youngest son.
Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, worked for Current TV, a cable and Web network co-founded by former vice president Al Gore. They have told their families, in letters and in phone calls allowed before their sentencing, that they were frightened but being treated relatively well.
Their five-day trial was held in Pyongyang's Central Court, the top court in North Korea, and no foreign observers were allowed.
But interpreters were provided to the two reporters, the government statement said. It also said that Ling asked for an attorney and was provided one, while Lee declined legal representation.
The journalists appear to have become bargaining chips for North Korea in its gamesmanship with the United States. In the past, the Pyongyang government has released Americans who have entered the country illegally. It also has a history of brinkmanship, turning confrontation into negotiations that end up rewarding it with food, fuel and other concessions.
Human rights groups estimate that about 200,000 North Koreans are held in those camps. Survivors of the camps who have escaped to South Korea describe food shortages and relentless work, and say that those who were injured or became ill often died for lack of medical care. Those who try to escape are publicly executed, survivors say.
Analysts said Ling and Lee will probably be held under relatively humane conditions until the succession drama in Pyongyang is resolved -- and then be released to the United States as a token of North Korea's readiness to resume bilateral negotiations.
Release might not come soon, however, several analysts said.
"The North Koreans are caught up with other important things now," said Lee Young Hwa, a North Korea expert who teaches at Kansai University in Japan. "So, unfortunately, the two journalists can't come out for a while. Precisely because of that they sentenced the two to 12 years. One year would be too soon for the North to deal with."
Ling suffers from an ulcer, according to her family. Lee has a 4-year-old daughter.
In its announcement Tuesday, North Korea's tone was defiant.
"We are making this announcement in order to publicize to the world criminal acts Americans committed amid unprecedented confrontation on the Korean Peninsula," the statement said.
It also said that the sentence cannot be appealed.