Ling, who is the sister of National Geographic "Explorer" reporter and former "The View" host Lisa Ling, and Lee were reporting for Current TV about the trafficking of North Korean women when they were arrested. It's not clear whether they actually crossed the border, or if agressive guards entered China to nab them. Their cameraman and local guide escaped.
According to a terse two line report from the state-run Korean Central News Agency, Ling and Lee were convicted of committing a "grave crime" against North Korea by illegally entering the country. The Central Court in Pyongyang sentenced the two women to 12 years of "reform through labor" in a North Korean prison following a five day trial. Not much is known about prisons conditions, but the South Korean missionary who helped arrange the reporters' trip to China said prisoners in labor camps often face beatings and inhumane treatment.
There is speculation the women are being used as bargaining chips as the United Nations debates a resolution to punish North Korea following nuclear tests last month. Former U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson said North Korea is playing a "high-stakes poker game." He predicted on NBC's Today show that negotiations for a "humanitarian release" can begin now that the legal proceedings are over. South Korean analysts also expect negotiations that will result in the women's freedom.
At the White House on Monday, deputy spokesman William Burton said in a statement:
"The president is deeply concerned by the reported sentencing of the two by North Korean authorities, and we are engaged through all possible channels to secure their release."
The families of Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, had no immediate comment.
The sentencing comes a month after Iran released an Iranian-American reporter who had been convicted of spying for the U.S.