US working to win release of journalists in NKorea

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is working "through all possible channels" to secure the release of two young women journalists sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in North Korea, the White House said Monday.

The two were found guilty of a "grave crime" against North Korea and of illegally crossing into the reclusive nation's territory, according to North Korea's state-run news agency.

Former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson on Monday called the sentencing part of "a high-stakes poker game" and said the time might be right for the United States to work out the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee with the country's leaders in Pyongyang.

"It is harsher than expected," Richardson said on NBC's "Today" show.

At the White House, deputy spokesman William Burton said in a statement: "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."

Richardson, who was instrumental in negotiating the release of U.S. citizens from North Korea in an incident in the 1990s, said "the good thing is that there is no charge of espionage." He also said now that the legal process has been completed, he thinks negotiations for their "humanitarian release" can begin.

Richardson said officials of the Obama administration had been in contact with him for his thoughts on how to proceed.

"This is a high-stakes poker game," he said. " ... In previous instances where I was involved in negotiating, you could not get this started until the legal process had ended."

Richardson, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination last year said he thought there were some positive signs of prospects for Ling's and Lee's release.

He said that North Korea so far has not, at least publicly, tried to tie this incident to differences with Washington over its nuclear program and the recent series of missile tests that it has conducted. He also said he has not seen particularly bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang on the issue of the two women held there.

Richardson said he has talked to the families of the two journalists, but he also said talk of negotiations at this juncture is "premature" because a framework for such discussions would have to first be established.

"What we would try to seek," he said, "is some kind of political pardon, some sort of respite from political proceedings."

A young sea turtle is seen on Runduma island, Wakatobi. AFP/File/Adek Berry