Early this morning, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two American journalists working for California-based Current TV, were sentenced to 12 years of “reform through labor.”

David Hawk, an expert on communist labor camps and author of the 2004 study, “The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps,” spoke to the Los Angeles Times and painted a grim picture of what their sentences might entail:

Ling and Lee may be sent to a “kyo-hwa-so” or re-education reformatory “that is the equivalent of a felony penitentiary in the U.S., as opposed to a county jail or misdemeanor facility,” [Hawk] said.

“It’s extremely hard labor under extremely brutal conditions,” said Hawk. “These places have very high rates of deaths in detention. The casualties from forced labor and inadequate food supplies are very high.”

Because the pair was tried by the nation’s highest court, there can be no appeal, analysts say.

Reporters Without Borders issued a statement this morning saying members of the organization were “appalled” by the sentences, which were “clearly designed to scare journalists trying to do investigative reporting in the border area between China and North Korea, which is ranked as Asia’s worst country in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists also issued a statement, calling the sentences “deplorable”:

“Euna Lee and Laura Ling are journalists who were doing their jobs reporting on an important humanitarian story. It is deplorable that they have been tried as criminals and sentenced so harshly,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’ Asia program coordinator. “We fear that their detention is linked to the ongoing security situation on the Korean Peninsula and we call on all parties to the Six Party Talks–North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States–to work together for their release.”

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