WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two U.S. journalists jailed by North Korea may become bargaining chips in an escalating nuclear standoff with Pyongyang, although the Obama administration hopes to keep the two issues separate.
Aides to President Barack Obama have been working behind the scenes to secure the release of the two women, Laura Ling and Euna Lee. North Korea sentenced them on Monday to 12 years of hard labor.
Obama is weighing whether to send either former U.S. Vice President Al Gore or New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to Pyongyang to try to negotiate the release of the journalists.
"Part of what the North Koreans may be interested in doing is using the journalists and their release as a way of mitigating a possible response at the U.N. Security Council," said Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the U.S.-based Asia Foundation development assistance organization.
"I'm sure the North Koreans perceive themselves as having great leverage with two Americans in their hands," Snyder said.
The sentencing came as Washington sought support in the U.N. Security Council for a resolution tightening sanctions on North Korea after its nuclear test last month. A draft resolution calls for inspections of suspicious cargo going in and out of North Korea by air and sea.
The United States also is considering putting North Korea back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Snyder said the Obama administration will need to walk a fine line, attempting to play down the perception that North Korea has leverage "without devaluing the objective" of achieving the return of the journalists.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an interview with ABC News that was aired on Sunday, said the administration did not want the issue of the journalists "pulled into the political issues that we have with North Korea or the concerns that are being expressed in the United Nations Security Council."
"This is separate. It is a humanitarian issue," Clinton said.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs echoed that comment on Monday, saying, "Their detainment is not something that we've linked to other issues. And we hope the North Koreans don't do that either."
The journalists were arrested while working on a story for the U.S. media outlet Current TV near the border between North Korea and China. The media outlet was co-founded by Gore.
Richardson, who served as ambassador to the United Nations and energy secretary in the Clinton administration, has been tapped previously for high-level talks with North Korea. In 1996, he played a key role in securing the release of a U.S. citizen arrested for crossing into North Korea.
Many U.S. analysts think the nuclear test and the series of missile launches conducted in recent weeks by North Korea were motivated by internal issues in the reclusive communist state.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is widely believed to have suffered a stroke last year, and there is speculation that his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, may be in line to succeed him.
The nuclear and missile tests indicate that North Korea's leaders are calculating that the durability of their grip on power hinges on being recognized as a "de facto nuclear power," former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in an opinion piece in the Washington Post on Monday.
Clinton said that the United States was seeking a strong U.N. resolution "with teeth that will have consequences for the North Korean regime."
Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg last week led a high-level U.S. delegation to Asia to consult with regional players on the resolution.
Nicholas Szechenyi, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said Pyongyang may be seeking to escalate tensions to see how the United States and the international community will respond.
"This situation with the journalists complicates an already delicate situation and gives the North Koreans an opportunity to be even more uncooperative," Szechenyi added.
Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by Will Dunham