North Korea's sentencing of two American TV journalists to 12 years of hard labor Monday could imperil the Obama administration's already difficult goal of curtailing the authoritarian nation's nuclear weapons ambitions.
If no deal is reached, the two women face a grim future in a brutal prison system notorious for its lack of adequate food and medical supplies and its high death rate.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for San Francisco-based Current TV, were convicted by the nation's top Central Court of an unspecified "grave crime" against the hard-line regime after they were arrested in March along the Chinese-North Korean border while reporting a story on human trafficking.
In a terse statement Monday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency did not say where the women are to serve the time. North Koreans who receive similar sentences of "reform through labor" often face starvation and torture in a penal system many consider among the world's most repressive, said David Hawk, author of the 2004 study "The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps."
Amid an international outcry over the sentences, the White House said Monday that it was "engaged through all possible channels" in seeking the release of Ling, 32, and Lee, 36.
A top U.S. goal is to prevent the effort from being linked to the larger dispute over North Korea's nuclear weapons program. But the outcome of that effort is anything but certain, experts said.
"I think it very unlikely that the North Koreans would let them go without some serious extortion," said L. Gordon Flake, a Korea expert and president of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, a Washington think tank. "But giving in to that extortion would fundamentally undermine broader U.S. national security interests."
The question of linkage may be the most important to the fate of the women. U.S. officials fear that the North Koreans may attempt to make any reduction in the journalists' sentences dependent on what kind of punishment is imposed by the United Nations or by individual countries in response to Pyongyang's recent nuclear detonation and missile tests.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that while the administration was "deeply concerned" about the length of the sentences, America's differences with North Korea over Pyongyang's arms program are "separate and apart from what's happening to the two journalists."
However, if the U.S. refuses to mingle the two issues, analysts said, the eventual release of the two women could be delayed.
If the pair are held for a lengthy period, analysts believe they may be sent to a kyo-hwa-so, or "reeducation" reformatory, "that is the equivalent of a felony penitentiary in the U.S., as opposed to a county jail or misdemeanor facility," Hawk said.
"It's extremely hard labor under extremely brutal conditions," he said. "These places have very high rates of deaths in detention. The casualties from forced labor and inadequate food supplies are very high."
Many North Korean reeducation camps, he said, are affiliated with mines or textile factories where the long work shifts are often followed by self-criticism sessions and the forced memorization of North Korean communist policy doctrine.
The literal meaning of kyo-hwa-so is "a place to make a good person through education," said Hawk, who interviewed a dozen survivors for his study for a group known as the U.S. Committee for Humans Rights in North Korea.
Hawk, like other experts, expects, though, that the pair will escape the worst of fates because of the glare of the international spotlight.
"If these women do get sent to the camps, they're probably going to make sure that they don't die in detention," he said. "They're probably going to be treated better."
U.S. officials acknowledged Monday that they have been discussing the idea of sending a high-level envoy to North Korea to seek the release of the women, following a pattern that was used to secure freedom for American prisoners in the 1990s. But they said no decision had been reached on the issue, and suggested that some diplomatic groundwork might be necessary before such a step could be taken.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who helped negotiate the release of U.S. prisoners in the 1990s and has been in discussions with the Obama administration, suggested in an interview on NBC's "Today" show that talk of an envoy was "premature because what first has to happen is a framework for negotiations on a potential humanitarian release. What we would try to seek would be some kind of a political pardon."
Richardson has been mentioned as a possible envoy, as has former Vice President Al Gore, who is co-founder of Current TV, the San Francisco media company that employs Ling and Lee. Gore has remained mum, possibly fearing that his visibility would politicize the issue and reduce the chances of the women being released, analysts said.
Charles L. Pritchard, a former U.S. official who was involved in similar negotiations to free a U.S. citizen from North Korea, predicted that release of the pair would probably require "intense behind-the-scenes negotiations" with Pyongyang.
He said the North Koreans may want to use this case to "punish the United States, as they are now being sanctioned and punished by the United States. . . . I don't think there is going to be an easy or a quick solution."
For his part, Richardson said there might be reason for hope in the fact that the North Koreans did not file espionage charges against the women. He noted also that North Korea had not yet explicitly linked discussions of the journalists to negotiations over the broader U.S.-North Korean dispute.
The families of the two prisoners expressed shock at the stiff sentences.
"We are very concerned about their mental state and well-being," they said in a statement. "Laura has a serious medical condition that is sure to be exacerbated by the drastic sentence. Euna has a 4-year-old daughter who is displaying signs of anguish over the absence of her mother. We believe that the three months they have already spent under arrest with little communication with their families is long enough."
As U.S. officials weigh options, experts with knowledge of impoverished North Korea's penitentiary system stress that time is of the essence.
"The first thing that passed through my mind when I heard about the verdict was that, from an American perspective, this is tantamount to a death sentence," said Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.
"There aren't a lot of guarantees in that type of environment. It's different from any prison that exists in the modern-day United States. This is a very sobering challenge for a new administration."
North Korean defector Kim Hyuck, who spent a total of seven months between 1998 and 2000 in a kyo-hwa-so, said the percentage of prisoners who die from the harsh conditions would be unimaginable in the West.
"It is not an easy place," Kim, 28, who now studies math at a South Korean university, said of the camps. "Centers for men and women are separate. But even [the] women's place is not comfortable at all. . . . When I was in the center, roughly 600 to 700 out of a total 1,500 died."
Kim and Hawk said days at the camps begin before dawn, with workers fed "watery corn gruel" and then sent off to their assignments.
To become sick, Kim said, is often to die.
Many succumb from malnutrition and related symptoms such as diarrhea and fever, he said. "There is no medication. Officers gave us a powder made of pine tree leaves. That's what they gave us for every disease. It was just to give some sort of comfort."
Hawk said torture and punishment are often used as a tool to maintain control. "People are punished for violating labor camp regulations," he said.
The most common violation is trying to steal food. "If people eat food that's supposed to be for livestock, it's a violation."
Political prisoners face the toughest conditions, he said.
"They're taken care of separately by the spy agency of North Korea," Kim said. "They are beaten so harshly. There is no responsibility for their death."
Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Beijing and Ju-min Park in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times