Page last updated at 10:00 GMT, Monday, 8 June 2009 11:00 UK

North Korea jails US journalists

Journalists Euna Lee (L) and Laura Ling

A court in North Korea has sentenced two US journalists to 12 years' hard labour, state media say.

Euna Lee and Laura Ling were found guilty of "hostile acts" and illegal entry into the communist state.

They were arrested in March after allegedly crossing into North Korea from China.

The US said it was "deeply concerned" by the sentence and called for the release of the two women on humanitarian grounds.

The trial comes amid growing tensions over North Korea's nuclear programme and recent missile tests.

"The trial confirmed the grave crime they [the reporters] committed against the Korean nation and their illegal border crossing," state-run KCNA news agency said in a brief report, adding that they were sentenced to 12 years of "reform through labour".

The news agency gave no further details.

Outside observers were not allowed to witness the hearing at Pyongyang's court.

The verdict means that the journalists face the prospect of spending years in one of the North's prison camps, where conditions are reported to be extremely harsh, the BBC's Chris Hogg in Seoul says.

US envoy?

In a statement, the US State Department said: "We are 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."

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton earlier described the charges against the two women as "baseless". She is thought to be considering sending an envoy to try to negotiate their release.

There has been speculation that former US Vice-President Al Gore might travel to Pyongyang. He is the co-founder of Current TV, the California-based internet broadcaster the two journalists were working for.

Euna Lee, a Korean-American, and Laura Ling, a Chinese-American, were arrested by North Korean guards on 17 March while working on the China-North Korea border on a story about refugees.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visits a factory in Tanchon, in an undated photo released on 6 June
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il wants direct talks with the US

Some reports have suggested that the women were held while on Chinese soil, but Pyongyang's state media say they had illegally entered North Korea.

The pair have been held in detention since their arrest.

There are fears they will now be used as "bargaining chips" by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in his efforts to win concessions from Washington, our correspondent says.

These concessions could include humanitarian aid or direct talks with Washington, analysts say.

The US has so far said negotiations can only be held under the currently-stalled six-party talks on nuclear disarmament, which also includes South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

The women's families have appealed for clemency and asked Pyongyang and Washington not to link their case with the current diplomatic stand-off.

Tensions have increased in the region since North Korea conducted a nuclear test in May and then test-fired several missiles. Another long-range missile test is believed to be planned for later this month.

The UN Security Council is discussing tightening sanctions against Pyongyang, and Mrs Clinton said on Sunday that the US was considering reinstating North Korea in its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

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