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2009/04/02 11:02 KST


Two American Journalists Face Trial in North Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea will put to trial two American journalists detained in along its border with China earlier this month on charges of illegal entry and hostile acts, the country's state news agency said on March 31.

   The North's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said preparations are underway to indict the female reporters but did not say when a trial would open.

   The indictment comes amid already heightened tension between North Korea and the United States, as Pyongyang prepares to fire off what it claims is a satellite, which Washington claims would breach a U.N. Security Resolution.

   North Korea's neighbors suspect the launch, scheduled to take place between April 4 and 8, is a cover for testing its ballistic missile technology.

   "The illegal entry of U.S. reporters into the DPRK (North Korea) and their suspected hostile acts have been confirmed by evidence and their statements, according to the results of intermediary investigation conducted by a competent organ of the DPRK," the North's report said.

   Seoul officials said such an announcement is unusual for North Korea, which has resolved previous detention cases through negotiations under the table. The report emphasized the safety of the detained reporters and that the communist country is following international standards.

   "While the investigation is under way consular contact is allowed and the treatment of U.S. reporters, etc. are given according to the relevant international laws," it said.

   The U.S. State Department said on March 30 that a Swedish diplomat had visited the journalists over the weekend on behalf of Washington, which has no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

   "A representative of the Swedish embassy met with each one individually," spokesman Gordon Duguid said, giving no details of their condition.

   The reporters, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, from Current TV, a San Francisco-based Internet outlet, were taken by North Korean soldiers on March 17 along the Tumen River on the Chinese border while working on a documentary on North Korean defectors.

   The North Korean report did not say what punishment their charges might carry. Moon Dae-hong, senior prosecutor and legal advisor on North Korea for Seoul's Unification Ministry, said there were not enough details to gauge possible punishment, but if a North Korean criminal code on "hostility crime" is applied, they may face a prison term.

   "Under North Korean criminal law, most of the crimes carry heavy punishment," Moon said.

   According to North Korean criminal law, foreigners who "infringe upon the bodies or the properties of North Korean citizens living or temporarily staying overseas so as to exercise their hostility toward the Korean people" will be sent to labor camps for between five years and 10 years. If the crime is serious, the punishment may be more severe.

   U.S. officials would not discuss the detention in detail, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

   State Department spokesman Robert Wood said last week that the U.S. has been "trying to work this diplomatically, because it's a very sensitive issue," but added, "It's hard to say, in dealing with the North, whether we can be optimistic or not."

   The U.S. has not yet been notified of North Korea's plans to put the American journalists on trial, he said.

   "We've seen press reports that there will be charges laid," Duguid said. "We have not had that through our diplomatic contacts," he added.

   The detention comes at a time when tensions have mounted on the Korean Peninsula after North Korea's announcement of a rocket launch in early April to orbit a satellite.

   The detention is the third of its kind since 1994, when North Korea detained a U.S. pilot whose military chopper was shot down after straying into its territory and released him in 13 days.

   Two years later, another American citizen, Evan Hunziker, were held for three months on suspicion of spying after swimming in the Yalu River bordering North Korea and China.

   Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, then a U.S. congressman, flew to Pyongyang to successfully negotiate their releases.

   Analysts say the detained journalists may be released earlier depending on the results of future negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea.

   Pyongyang is expected to be as severe as possible with the journalists, as they were trying to expose the North's grim human rights situation, an act which it sees a a serious threat to stability. Analysts say the North may be looking to send a message to Western news media.

   There are high chances the North will carry the case through until sentencing as it has already begun legal proceedings according to its domestic criminal law. The North then may attempt to use the U.S. nationals as hostages until international anger over its rocket launch dies down.

   "I believe the case of female journalists in detention will be settled in a similar manner as the Evan Hunziker case," an analyst said, requesting anonymity.

   Yet it is unclear whether Pyongyang actually intends to carry out the sentencing, especially if the journalists are given lengthy prison terms.

   Their detention may be protracted if Pyongyang tries to use them as bargaining chips future negotiations with the Obama administration.

   If progress is made in the negotiations, North Korea may release the journalists after receiving an apology from them and assurances from Washington against the recurrence of such an incident. But the short-term prospect for the relations look grim with Pyongyang threatening to quit the six-party talks on its nuclear programs and retain its atomic weapons should the U.S. impose sanctions over its satellite launch.