WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and his top national security aides on Monday urged North Korea to release "on humanitarian grounds" two American journalists sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for entering North Korean territory.
But administration officials also warned that the harsh sentence was likely to be a negotiating ploy as the country tries to avoid new sanctions in response to its nuclear test two weeks ago.
In public statements, administration officials frequently referred to the two journalists as "young women" who might have inadvertently crossed the North Korean border and urged North Korea to return them to their families. "Their detainment is not something that we've linked to other issues, and we hope the North Koreans don't do that, either," Robert Gibbs, Obama's press secretary, told reporters on Monday afternoon.
The sentences of Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, both of California, to serve in North Korea's brutal labor camps have complicated the Obama administration's agenda. The administration has been working at the U.N. Security Council for a series of new sanctions that would both cut off funds to North Korea and interdict cargo, to search for missiles, weapons or nuclear technology.
Officials appeared to be weighing whether to send a special envoy in a high-profile effort to secure the release of the two women, who were detained by North Korean soldiers at the Chinese border on March 17. The two most likely candidates were former Vice President Al Gore, whose Current TV news network employs the two journalists, and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who has visited North Korea regularly and arranged the release of another American 15 years ago.
But the White House declined to talk about that option, and Gore has kept silent, perhaps in hopes of not hardening the North's position. Richardson said it was too early for Obama to send a representative.