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North Korean labor camps a ghastly prospect for U.S. journalists

If their sentence is carried out, Laura Ling and Euna Lee face possible torture and even death in North Korea's notorious gulag system, experts say.

June 09, 2009|By John M. Glionna and Paul Richter | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Charles L. Pritchard, a former U.S. official who was involved in similar negotiations to free a U.S. citizen from North Korea, predicted that release of the pair would probably require "intense behind-the-scenes negotiations" with Pyongyang.

He said the North Koreans may want to use this case to "punish the United States, as they are now being sanctioned and punished by the United States. . . . I don't think there is going to be an easy or a quick solution."

For his part, Richardson said there might be reason for hope in the fact that the North Koreans did not file espionage charges against the women. He noted also that North Korea had not yet explicitly linked discussions of the journalists to negotiations over the broader U.S.-North Korean dispute.

The families of the two prisoners expressed shock at the stiff sentences.

"We are very concerned about their mental state and well-being," they said in a statement. "Laura has a serious medical condition that is sure to be exacerbated by the drastic sentence. Euna has a 4-year-old daughter who is displaying signs of anguish over the absence of her mother. We believe that the three months they have already spent under arrest with little communication with their families is long enough."

As U.S. officials weigh options, experts with knowledge of impoverished North Korea's penitentiary system stress that time is of the essence.

"The first thing that passed through my mind when I heard about the verdict was that, from an American perspective, this is tantamount to a death sentence," said Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

"There aren't a lot of guarantees in that type of environment. It's different from any prison that exists in the modern-day United States. This is a very sobering challenge for a new administration."

North Korean defector Kim Hyuck, who spent a total of seven months between 1998 and 2000 in a kyo-hwa-so, said the percentage of prisoners who die from the harsh conditions would be unimaginable in the West.

"It is not an easy place," Kim, 28, who now studies math at a South Korean university, said of the camps. "Centers for men and women are separate. But even [the] women's place is not comfortable at all. . . . When I was in the center, roughly 600 to 700 out of a total 1,500 died."

Kim and Hawk said days at the camps begin before dawn, with workers fed "watery corn gruel" and then sent off to their assignments.

To become sick, Kim said, is often to die.

Many succumb from malnutrition and related symptoms such as diarrhea and fever, he said. "There is no medication. Officers gave us a powder made of pine tree leaves. That's what they gave us for every disease. It was just to give some sort of comfort."

Hawk said torture and punishment are often used as a tool to maintain control. "People are punished for violating labor camp regulations," he said.

The most common violation is trying to steal food. "If people eat food that's supposed to be for livestock, it's a violation."

Political prisoners face the toughest conditions, he said.

"They're taken care of separately by the spy agency of North Korea," Kim said. "They are beaten so harshly. There is no responsibility for their death."

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john.glionna@latimes.com

Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Beijing and Ju-min Park in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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