WASHINGTON (AFP) — US President Barack Obama is "deeply concerned" over the sentencing of two US journalists by North Korea and is using "all possible channels" to obtain their release, The White House said Monday.
"The president 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," White House spokesman Bill Burton told reporters.
A North Korean court earlier Monday sentenced two women working for a US media company to 12 years in a labor camp for an illegal border crossing and an unspecified "grave crime", North Korean state media reported.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee were detained by North Korean border guards on March 17 along the frozen Tumen River, which marks the North's border with China, while researching a story on refugees fleeing the hardline communist state.
The pair, both aged in their 30s, were on reporting assignment for San Francisco-based Current TV, a media company co-founded by former vice president Al Gore.
Earlier, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said: "We once again urge North Korea to grant the immediate release of the two American citizen journalists on humanitarian grounds."
Pyongyang has in the past freed captured Americans but only after personal interventions. The US State Department last week did not rule out the possibility that Gore might undertake such a mission.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a former US ambassador to the United Nations who has negotiated with North Korea and other rogue states in the past, said he had been contacted by the Obama administration for advice on the case and had spoken with the families of Ling and Lee.
Calling the charges "harsher than expected," Richardson told NBC's "Today Show" that any talk of a US envoy for the case was "premature" because a framework for negotiations on a potential humanitarian release had to first be established.
"What we would try to seek would be some kind of a political pardon, some kind of a respite from the legal proceedings," explained Richardson, who in 1994 negotiated the release of the surviving pilot of a US Army helicopter downed in North Korea, along with the body of his dead co-pilot.
Richardson also sounded an optimistic note about the fate of the two US journalists in what he called a "high stakes poker game."
"Now a legal process ends and political negotiations can begin," he said, noting that Pyongyang had not charged the two women with espionage. "The good news also is that the North Koreans also seem to have been separating this issue from the political differences."
Washington and Pyongyang have been at loggerheads over North Korea's nuclear test last month and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Sunday that it might place the reclusive regime back on the US list of state sponsors of terror, which could translate to more financial sanctions for the North.
Clinton also said the charges against the pair of journalists were baseless and they should be allowed to return home.
Both detainees are married and Lee has a four-year-old daughter.
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