WASHINGTON, June 8 (UPI) -- U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee have been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor after being found guilty of the "grave crime" of illegally crossing into North Korea. Hard labor in the North Korean prison system could easily be tantamount to a death sentence, but it seems at least possible that the increasingly unpredictable regime in Pyongyang may be prepared to let them go in return for major concessions from the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.
The timing of the trial appears related to recent Pyongyang posturing regarding military testing and threats of retaliation should the international community take actions through the U.N. Security Council against North Korea. The U.S. government issued a statement that it was "deeply concerned" about the journalists' fate.
However, the trial of Ling and Lee appears remarkably similar to the one that was accorded in Iran to another U.S. journalist -- Roxana Saberi. The Iranian-American Saberi was convicted in a one-day trial in April of espionage charges of which she was patently innocent. Yet she was quickly released afterwards.
Iran and North Korea were together branded as part of an "axis of evil" by U.S. President George W. Bush in an early State of the Union address. And they do indeed closely coordinate their policies in many areas, especially intelligence-sharing and helping each other develop long-range missiles.
It is therefore quite feasible that North Korean policymakers closely studied Obama's continued efforts to open up a serious dialogue with Iran and his reluctance to turn to either the use of military force or increased economic sanctions against Tehran, and they may believe they will be able to extort significant concessions from the still-inexperienced American president.
It is also striking that while Ling and Lee were given disproportionately harsh sentences simply for crossing into North Korea, they were not tried and convicted on the potentially far graver charge of espionage. This may be a signal to Washington, or just a maneuver for internal consumption, that would make it easier for the Pyongyang government to save face if it got sufficient concessions from Washington to release them.
The conviction of the two American journalists, therefore, could be a cynical bargaining chip played by North Korea to cause the United States to back off in the U.N. Security Council.
The Obama administration Monday said all avenues are under review to gain release of the two women. Both the White House and the State Department also called for the release of Current TV journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee on humanitarian grounds, CNN reported.
Ling and Lee have now been detained since March 17 -- St. Patrick's Day -- when they were arrested along the North Korea-Chinese border. North Korea's highest Central Court handed down its sentence on them last Thursday, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported. The court's actions cannot be appealed.
A State Department spokesman told CNN Monday that the sentencing had been confirmed through diplomatic channels after it had been reported by North Korea's state-run news agency.
"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," State Department spokesman Ian Kelley said in a statement. "We once again urge North Korea to grant the immediate release of the two American citizen journalists on humanitarian grounds."
White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said Obama "is deeply concerned by the reported sentencing of the two American citizen journalists by North Korean authorities."
News of the convictions came after North Korea threatened retaliation if the United Nations punished it for its nuclear test last month. The United States has warned it might try to put North Korea back on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, which could bring additional financial sanctions.
But North Korea is now led by more inexperienced leaders, more ignorant and potentially even more paranoid about the wider world than at any previous time in its more than 60-year history.
Kim Jong Un, the youngest of longtime ruler Kim Jong Il's three sons -- each by a different mother -- has clearly emerged as his father's designated successor. And there is increasing speculation that Kim Jong Il, the son and longtime heir of state founding father Kim Il Sung, may have been incapacitated by strokes or other serious illnesses.
Certainly, there has been an increasingly militant and confrontational tone to the official announcements coming out of Pyongyang -- the world's most inaccessible capital -- since Vice Marshal Kim Yong Chun, 73, was named minister of the People's Armed Forces in February. He replaced Kim Il Chol, who had been in the post since 2000, according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
At about the same time, Gen. Ri Yong Ho was appointed chief of the North Korean army's General Staff, equivalent to the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, replacing Kim Kyok Sik, who had served in the post for the previous two years.
Vice Marshal Kim and Gen. Ri are certainly not inexperienced in terms of the North's military and politics. But they are super-hawks, even in that society. And coupled with the emergence of Kim Jong Un as his father's successor, their eminence indicates that the new leadership may be less averse to risk-taking and far more unpredictable than its predecessors. This may have an important bearing on the fates of Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee.