Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee get sentenced in North Korea

Until a few months ago, the only thing I knew about Current TV is that it is home to infoMania, the half-hour satirical news program that gives us Sarah HaskinsTarget: Women. I didn’t even know the cable network was backed by Al Gore. Of course this was before Current TV journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were detained by North Korea, after being discovered along the Chinese border in March.

An undated file photo of Lee and Ling

Yesterday the women were sentenced to 12 years in a North Korean labor camp — a harsher punishment than anyone imagined — on charges of “hostile acts” and entering North Korea illegally.

Early stories say that Ling and Lee were reporting on North Korean refugees, while journalist Lisa Ling, Laura’s sister, insists that the two were working on a story about North Korean women being trafficked into China. Of course, at this point, squabbling over their intended reportage seems superfluous.

According to most media outlets and statements issued by the White House, the women crossed the Chinese border inadvertently. (Some sources are even reporting that they were still in China when captured.) Unfortunately, North Korea has a zero-tolerance trespassing policy for journalists.

Journalist Lisa Ling breaks down while issuing a statement to the press about her sister.

Politics is sort of outside the scope of what we cover on, but recognizing the heightened tension between the United States and North Korea during Ling and Lee’s trial provides framework for understanding their sentence, and it also gives us hope that the women will be brought home soon.

During Ling and Lee’s detainment, American relations with North Korea deteriorated to a new low. In April, North Korea tested a long-range missile, and in May it conducted its second nuclear test in three years. The United Nations began debating tougher sanctions, threatening to intercept ships thought to contain non-traditional weaponry. President Obama has even considered returning North Korea to its terrorist watch list.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that North Korea is in the process of choosing dictator Kim Jong-il‘s successor.

The convergence of these events created a terrible storm in which Ling and Lee found themselves trapped.

Experts seem confident that the 12-year sentence was imposed to force the United States into bilateral talks with the North Korean government. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded that the two women to be released on the basis of humanitarianism. Already talks are underway to decide who to send on envoy to North Korea to argue for Ling and Lee’s safe return. Some professionals are going as far as to say that the women will never see a labor camp because there are secrets inside that North Korea does not want to let out.

Worldwide protests and vigils have been held for the two captured journalists.

In the meantime however, Ling and Lee’s situation is, frankly, terrifying. The women have been allowed one call to their families. They were tried with no transparency and no legal representation. They have been separated and held in solitary confinement during their detainment. Lee has a four-year-old daughter who is just now beginning to understand that her mom is not on the way home, and Ling’s family reports that she has a serious medical condition that will certainly be exacerbated by her bleak circumstances — not to mention the almost certain psychological ramifications the two women will suffer before they’re allowed home.

News outlets — including Ling and Lee’s employer, Current TV — and the White House have been far too quiet about this issue up until now, but blogs, petitions and Twitter feeds have been mobilized powerfully by those wishing to see a swift end to the use of these women as political bargaining chips.

How can you get involved?

You can sign an online petition for Ling and Lee’s release here.

You can follow breaking news on Ling and Lee’s story at LiberateLaura’s Twitter feed. Or, you can follow the women’s individual hash-tagged searches: Laura Ling, Euna Lee.