US President Barack Obama got back to Washington after trips to the Middle East and Europe only to encounter another challenge, this time North Korea's sentencing of two US journalists to 12 years in prison.
Tension between North Korea and the US has been up since Pyongyang conducted a nuclear detonation followed by test firings of missiles last month, prompting Washington to push for tough measures by the UN Security Council.
The harsh jail terms handed down to Chinese-American Laura Ling and Korean-American Euna Lee added to what is already a difficult challenge of reining in the increasingly bellicose regime running North Korea.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Lee, 26, and Ling, 32, should be immediately released on humanitarian grounds but would not discuss the details of the diplomatic efforts to secure their freedom.
"We are deeply concerned about the length of the sentences and the fact that this trial was conducted totally in secret, with no observers, and we're engaged in all possible ways through every possible channel to secure their release," she said.
Meanwhile, the US is seeking tough steps from the Security Council that could include a resolution authorising the interception of North Korean ship carrying weapons or nuclear technology in response to Pyongyang's atomic and missile tests, The New York Times reported on Monday.
China has been reluctant to sign on to measures that could further destabilise Kim Jong Il's regime, even though Beijing strongly opposes the emergence of North Korea as a nuclear state. Clinton said the US will not tie the controversy over the journalists to the diplomacy on the nuclear issue.
"There are other concerns that we and the international community have with North Korea, but those are separate and apart from what's happening to the two journalists," Clinton said at a press conference with Indonesian Foreign Minister Noer Hassan Wirajuda.
Clinton said in an interview with ABC News on Sunday that the US is looking into the possibility of reintroducing North Korea to the State Department's blacklist for alleged state sponsors of terrorism.
The Bush administration removed the Stalinist state from the list in October as part of the six-nation nuclear disarmament negotiations. North Korea pulled out of the negotiations earlier this year, restarted its nuclear work on the Yongbyon facility and proceeded with the detonation and missile tests.
The six-nation talks, which include China, Japan, Russia, the US and two Koreas, produced an agreement for North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions in return for aid and improved diplomatic relations.
During his trip to France, Obama said he would not reward North Korea's threats with new concessions beyond the six-nation agreement. "We are not intending to continue a policy of rewarding provocation," he said.
Observers such as New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, considered an authority on North Korea from his years in the Clinton administration, believe Pyongyang is trying to use the journalists as leverage in the standoff over the nuclear issue.
The two journalists were detained March 17 while working on a story about North Korean refugees along the Chinese border. Pyongyang says two women illegally crossed into North Korean territory. They were convicted for an unspecified "grave crime" and sentenced to the prison terms.
Lee and Ling worked for San Francisco-based Current TV, which was co-founded by former US vice president Al Gore. Clinton said on ABC the charges against the women were baseless.