WASHINGTON - The White House says two U.S. journalists convicted and sentenced to 12 years of hard labour in North Korea are innocent.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters today that the detention is a humanitarian issue.

He says the administration is working to win the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former vice-president Al Gore's San Francisco-based Current TV media venture.

There are fears the North will use the journalists as bargaining chips as the UN debates a new resolution to punish the country for its defiant May 25 atomic test.

North Korea is seeking to draw the U.S. into direct negotiations.

Gibbs says he has seen no attempts by North Korea to tie the reporters' conviction to other issues.