ABC News' Kirit Radia reports: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today she was "deeply concerned" by the lengthy prison sentence handed down by a North Korean court today to two American journalists detained in the Stalinist country for nearly three months.
"Our thoughts are with these two young women and their families. I have spoken with family members and expressed our concern, as well as our commitment to securing the release of our citizens. Obviously, we are deeply concerned about the length of the sentences and the fact that this trial was conducted totally in secret, with no observers, and we're engaged in all possible ways through every possible channel to secure their release. And we once again urge North Korea to grant their immediate release on humanitarian grounds," Clinton said.
American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were detained by North Korean guards as they reported a story along the border with China in March.
The challenge for the United States now will be to balance punishing Pyongyang for its recent nuclear test without antagonizing the North as it seeks to win the release of the two Americans. It's terrible timing for the US which wants to tighten the screws on North Korea, but perhaps worse timing for the two Americans.
The US has sought to de-couple the two issues, though it will be difficult for Lee and Ling not to become a pawn in the delicate diplomatic dance.
Clinton today did her best to separate the sanctions from their detention.
"We view these as entirely separate matters. We think the imprisonment, trial and sentencing of Laura and Euna should be viewed as a humanitarian matter. We hope that the North Koreans will grant clemency and deport them," she said.
"There are other concerns that we and the international community have with North Korea, but those are separate and apart from what's happening to the two journalists," Clinton added.
"We think this should be examined on a humanitarian background," Clinton's spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters earlier in the day. "That's totally separate from what we're trying to do up in New York," where the US is pushing for sanctions on North Korea at the United Nations.
Of course the US is hard pressed to defend why a release on "humanitarian" grounds is justified, other than to say the crimes don't justify the harsh punishment and citing the opaque judicial process.
Neither Clinton nor Kelly would confirm ABC's reporting that the US had sent a letter to the North Koreans asking for their release.
"I think for understandable reasons I'm not going to go into our private diplomatic efforts," Clinton said when asked about the letter and whether the US would consider sending an envoy like Al Gore, whose Current TV employed the two journalists, to Pyongyang to negotiate for their release.
"We are pursuing every possible approach that we can consider in order to persuade the North Koreans to release them and send these young women home," she added.
"I don't want to go too much into detail on what exactly we're pursuing. I think, for reasons that you can understand, this is a -- obviously a sensitive subject," Kelly said.
"I have seen no indications that they're -- no overt indications that they're using these two young ladies as pawns," Kelly added.
When asked if the US would hold off on the push for sanctions until this issue is resolved, he replied: "No, no. As I said before, they're completely separate."