PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea's Supreme Court on Tuesday sentenced two South Koreans to life in prison with labor after finding them guilty of spying for Seoul.
Kim Kuk-gi and Choe Chun-gil were convicted of state subversion and, under North Korean law, their sentences are final and cannot be appealed.
North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said prosecutors had sought the death penalty. State media earlier said the two were detained last year for allegedly collecting confidential state information and attempting to spread a "bourgeois lifestyle and culture" in the North at the order of South Korea's spy agency and the U.S.
Analysts saw the sentences as retaliation against South Korea for the opening Tuesday of a U.N. office in Seoul tasked with monitoring human rights in North Korea. The North has repeatedly called the office a grave provocation.
South Korea's Unification Ministry expressed regret over the verdicts and urged North Korea to immediately release the men. South Korean officials have denied that the two men were involved in espionage.
Analysts say past detentions of South Koreans and Americans on spying charges were attempts by the impoverished North to wrest outside concessions. But Tuesday's sentences may have been connected to the opening in Seoul of the U.N. office.
"North Korea thinks South Korea is applying pressure on Pyongyang with the U.N. office so it's responding by (sentencing) these South Korean nationals," said analyst Cheong Seong-chang at the private Sejong Institute think tank in South Korea.
South Korean officials said Monday that North Korea cited the new U.N. human rights office last week when it announced a decision to boycott next month's University Games in South Korea.
The U.N. office, the first of its kind, was proposed in a ground-breaking U.N. commission of inquiry report last year on North Korea's rights record.
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby on Tuesday voiced deep U.S. concern over "threatening" North Korean comments about the opening of the office, saying that would not help security and stability on the Korean peninsula. He said in the future the office could potentially help hold accountable those responsible for rights abuses. "That is a good thing," Kirby told reporters.
North Korea dismisses any outside criticism of its human rights record as a U.S.-led campaign to overthrow its government.
The U.N. office's opening is likely to worsen already-tense relations between the two Koreas with Pyongyang expected to ratchet up harsh rhetoric against Seoul, said Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea's Kyungnam University. He said things will get worse if North Korea believes that South Korea is providing the U.N. office with information on North Korean human rights and arranging interviews with high-profile defectors.
The two Koreas have been divided along the world's most heavily fortified border since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.