SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The families of two American journalists convicted of crossing into North Korean territory pleaded to that country's government yesterday to let them go.

The families of Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, said in a statement that Ling has a "serious medical condition" that will be worsened by her prison sentence. The statement also said that Lee has a 4-year-old daughter who is beginning to worry about her mother.

Ling is the younger sister of Lisa Ling, a reporter for National Geographic "Explorer" TV. Lisa said her sister suffers from an ulcer.

The women were working for San Francisco-based Current TV when North Korean guards seized them March 17 near the country's border with China. The nation's highest court sentenced them to 12 years of hard labor.

The families were "shocked and devastated" by the sentence, according to the statement issued through the families' New York-based spokeswoman, Alanna Zahn. They asked the North Korean government "to show compassion" and grant the women clemency.

"We believe that the three months they have already spent under arrest with little communication with their families is long enough," the families said.

Ling and Lee were reporting about the trafficking of women at the time of their arrest.

"We don't know what really happened on March 17, but if they wandered across the border without permission, we apologize on their behalf and we are certain that they have also apologized," the statement said.

The sentencing sets the stage for possible negotiations with the reclusive nation for their release - perhaps involving an envoy from the United States.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who helped win the release of Americans from North Korea in the 1990s, said he was "ready to do anything" the Obama administration asked. Another possible negotiator, if the U.S. government approved, is former Vice President Al Gore, who founded the TV venture for which that both reporters work. A senior Obama administration official stressed that no decisions had been made on how to proceed. *