2 US journalists unlikely to see harsh prisons, specialists say

By William Foreman
Associated Press / June 11, 2009
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SEOUL - Prisoners spend long days toiling in rice paddies and factories. Survivors say beatings are frequent, hunger is constant, and clothing is scarce in the freezing winter.

But specialists said that based on past experiences, the two American journalists sentenced to 12 years in a North Korean labor prison probably won't see that side of the nation's notoriously brutal gulag. The reporters - Laura Ling and Euna Lee - will likely be kept apart from North Korean inmates as negotiators seek their release.

"I don't think the reporters will do hard labor. It's simply not in the North Koreans' interests to make them go through that," Roh Jeong-ho, director of the Center for Korean Legal Studies at Columbia Law School in New York, said Tuesday.

Roh agreed with several other analysts who have said Pyongyang will likely use the women to maximize its leverage in talks with Washington. Discussions have already begun about who would represent the United States as an envoy, with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and former vice president Al Gore named as possibilities.

"We are working, as I said yesterday, in every way open to us to persuade the North Korean government to release the two journalists on a humanitarian basis, and we are going to continue to pursue every possible avenue," US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday.

The reporters were arrested on the China-North Korea border three months ago while reporting for Gore's Current TV on the trafficking of women. Their five-day trial ended Monday when they were sentenced 12 years of "reform through labor."

One former North Korean official who defected to the South said the reporters would not be sent to an ordinary labor prison because the government wouldn't want the foreigners to witness the severe human rights violations at such places.

The Americans would likely be sent to a prison in Sariwon, said the defector, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of his job. The Sariwon prison usually houses purged party members, he said.