North Korea jails US journalists for 12 years

North Korea said on Monday it had found two US journalists guilty of entering the state illegally and sentenced both to 12 years of hard labour, a step likely to compound diplomatic strains with Washington and regional powers.

The female journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, of US media outlet Current TV, were arrested while working on a story near the border between North Korea and China.

”The trial confirmed the grave crime they committed against the Korean nation and their illegal border crossing as they had already been indicted and sentenced each of them to 12 years of reform through labour,” the official KCNA news agency said in a brief dispatch.

Analysts say the two have become bargaining chips in high-stakes negotiations with the United States, which has long sought to end the North’s nuclear ambitions.

News of the verdict came a day after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington was looking into putting North Korea back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation that could subject the impoverished state to more financial sanctions.

Earlier on Monday Pyongyang vowed to retaliate with ”extreme” measures if the United Nations punished it for conducting a nuclear test last month. The Security Council may adopt a new resolution as early as this week, though there is clear division among some members over how tough the sanctions should be.

”Our response would be to consider consider sanctions against us as a declaration of war and answer it with extreme hardline measures,” the reclusive state’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary.

An increasingly aggressive North indicated it was gearing up for fresh moves, issuing a no-sail warning off its east coast up to 260km off the Wonsan area from where it launched a missile in May and a barrage of short-range missiles in 2006.

Underscoring the divide in how to handle Pyongyang, Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone called for a strong UN resolution to make it clear that such tests would not be forgiven, while Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi at a meeting in Tokyo said a ”balanced” resolution was needed.

Clinton said last week that Washington was seeking the strongest possible resolution.

The United States removed North Korea from its terrorism blacklist in October in a bid to revive faltering six-party nuclear disarmament talks, prompting the North to take some measures to disable its nuclear facilities.

Pyongyang has since reversed those steps and said it had restarted the nuclear complex — including reprocessing nuclear fuel to obtain weapons-grade plutonium.

Many analysts believe the North’s belligerence may be largely aimed at a domestic audience with autocratic leader Kim Jong-il using it to bolster his position at home with the military and to better secure the succession for his youngest son Kim Jong-un.

His eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, told Japanese television over the weekend that he would not be surprised to see his brother take over because their father was very fond of him.

Speculation has for months focused on the health of Kim Jong-il (67) who is thought to have a stroke last year. If the youngest son does take over it would be the third generation to head the world’s first communist dynasty.

Renewed tensions over North Korea’s nuclear programme also coincide with the trial in recent days of two American female journalists held in Pyongyang.

Experts say North Korean law dictated a sentence of 10 years of more of hard labour for the two journalists, whose Current TV network was co-founded by former US vice-president Al Gore.

Clinton appealed on Sunday for the two women’s release, saying their case was a humanitarian issue and separate from the nuclear dossier. – Reuters

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