On Monday, journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in a North Korean prison. This morning, Blaine Harden in The Washington Post shares the probable reason: they were researching an article on the plight of women who, fleeing famine and poverty in North Korea, crossed the border into China. (You may have to create an account to read the Post article, but the account is free and takes only a minute to set up.)

Many of these refugee women ended up "being sold like livestock in China," according to one refugee who was sold in marriage to three men, sent back to North Korea, permanently maimed from a police beating, and then sent to a labor camp that she characterized as "hell on earth."

Actually, says a South Korean human-rights researcher, most of the women are much better off in China than they were in North Korea. If they stay with the men who buy them, they are given adequate food and housing. However, they and most of their children have no legal status. Without residency papers, the women can be deported at any moment - back to North Korea, where they will be treated as criminals. Their undocumented children, who will remain with their Chinese fathers, may not be able to go to school.

Tina Lambert, advocacy director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a U.K.-based human-rights group, called upon North Korea to "rescind this unjust sentence and to grant Laura Ling and Euna Lee's immediate release …. We urge the United Nations to boldly condemn and extensively investigate these concerns at all levels of its system, including the Security Council, as a matter of utmost importance."

Google "Christianity and women's rights" and you'll find plenty of evidence for the church's relative shortcomings in this area. But note that North Korea and China are both officially atheistic countries. When I get impatient with the church's slowness in treating women and men equally, I'll remind myself of that.

Meanwhile, let's all pray for Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee.