U.S. journalists in North Korea sentenced to 12 years hard labor

The sentence sounds Solzhenitsynian, the trial was certainly Kafkaesque, and whole affair smacks of dangerous Orwellian farce. But this is real life, and North Korea’s sham court convicted Laura Ling and Euna Lee, American journalists for Al Gore’s Current TV, for “grave crimes” against the Hermit Kingdom.

Whether this brazen sentencing is designed explicitly to challenge the brewing sanctions that the United States and UN are formulating, or whether it is simply a normal outcome of the reigning modus operandi in North Korea, is unclear. But this certainly throws a wrench into the already difficult negotiations over North Korea’s equally flagrant defiance of UN resolutions concerning its nuclear program.

North Korea may use the journalists’ freedom as a bargaining chip to avoid harsher sanctions, which strikes me as an unconscionable use of hostage-taking as diplomatic strategy. Even before this gambit, though, Pyongyang already seemed pretty resistant to one aspect of the potential new Security Council resolution in particular — that allowing inspection of suspect cargo coming into the country. And even though the two issues – nuclear proliferation and an egregious violation of press freedom – are nominally unrelated, they are both a matter of North Korean pride, and will therefore be all the trickier for the Obama Administration to deal with them separately.

UPDATE: Spencer Ackerman describes what Ling and Lee’s sentence might look like in practice.