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2009/04/30 11:13 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 52 (April 30, 2009)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

North Korea Says It Will Try Detained U.S. Journalists

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea said April 24 it will try two female American journalists detained in the country, announcing its investigation into their "crimes" has been concluded, without elaborating on the results or the charges.

   The two female U.S. journalists were arrested March 17 after they crossed the China-North Korea border while trying to produce a report on people defecting from the North and the difficult lives of people in the socialist country.

   If they are convicted of espionage, they could face up to 20 years in prison under the North's criminal code, which calls for years of imprisonment even for a simple illegal entry into the country.

   The announcement came hours after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a strong message backing a U.N. action against North Korea's recent rocket launch. A day later, a U.N. sanctions committee froze foreign assets of three North Korean firms over their suspected ties to missile and nuclear programs.

   The American journalists are Euna Lee and Laura Ling from the San Francisco-based Current TV, which was started by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

   "A competent organ of the DPRK (North Korea) concluded the investigation into the journalists of the United States," the official Korean Central News Agency said in a two-sentence report. "The organ formally decided to refer them to a trial on the basis of the confirmed crimes committed by them," it said, without specifying the charges.

   Pyongyang said on March 31 an investigation was underway and that it was preparing to indict them on charges of illegally entering the country and engaging in unspecified "hostile acts."

   The U.S. State Department said previously that diplomatic efforts were underway to free the Americans. The Swedish Embassy in the North has been handling affairs involving the detained journalists, as Washington does not have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

   North Korea earlier said consular contact was allowed and that the American reporters are being treated "according to the relevant international laws."

   Experts explain that the North's arrest of the journalists is the result of the deteriorated relations between Pyongyang and Washington since the North's rocket launch on April 5.

   Tensions have sharply risen since North Korea's rocket launch, which the U.N. Security Council swiftly condemned as a violation of a U.N. resolution barring its long-range ballistic activity.

   North Korea argued the launch successfully put a satellite into orbit and defended its sovereign right to develop space. Outside monitors said no such object has entered space, and that the launch was a disguised long-range missile test.

   Pyongyang protested by withdrawing from nuclear disarmament talks and expelling international monitors in mid-April. On April 25, the North said it has restarted extracting plutonium from spent fuel rods in its main nuclear facility.

   But the United States has ignored the North's "provocative actions." Secretary of State Clinton voiced a tougher position toward Pyongyang in a Congressional hearing April 22, with no hint yet of bilateral dialogue between the two sides.

   "We have to be strong, patient and consistent and not give in to the kind of back-and-forth and the unpredictable behavior of the North Korean regime," Clinton said. "I was pleased by the strong statement that we got unanimously from the United Nations condemning the missile launch, saying that it was in contravention of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718," she said.

   But her 10-page report to Congress featuring U.S. foreign policies on Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East and Iran had no mention of North Korea.

   Choson Sinbo, a pro-Pyongyang newspaper in Japan, warned North Korea may attempt a second nuclear test. The Barack Obama administration "should make diplomatic efforts to resolve tension and distrust from the (North Korean) military if it intends to avoid repeating the former administration's mistake that drove (North Korea) to a nuclear test," the paper said on April 24, referring to the North's 2006 nuclear test.

   According to North Korea's 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" can be sent to labor camps for five to 10 years. Heavier punishments can be imposed depending on the seriousness of the crime. Seoul officials could not say whether this stipulation would apply to the journalists.

   The Americans' detention is the third since 1994, when North Korea held a U.S. pilot whose military chopper was shot down after straying into North Korea.

   Two years later, another U.S. citizen, Evan Hunziker, was held for three months on suspicion of spying after swimming across the Amnok (Yalu) River bordering North Korea and China. Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, then a U.S. Congressman, flew to Pyongyang to successfully negotiate his release.

   A South Korean worker also remains in detention in North Korea for a fourth week on allegations of criticizing Pyongyang's political system and trying to incite a local female employee to defect.

   On April 25, North Korea belatedly broadcast a report on the sentencing of a U.S. journalist convicted of espionage in Iran, one day after it said it will try two American journalists being held in the North on similar charges.

   It was the first time the North reported on the case in Iran, whose court sentenced the U.S. reporter to eight years in prison on April 18. The report was carried by the North's state-owned radio, the Korean Central Broadcasting Station.

   Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea studies professor at Dongguk University, said the North's announcement that it will try the U.S. journalists could be aimed at Washington's toughened stance. "Pyongyang is urging Washington to quickly start dialogue," he said.

   Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said North Korea is demonstrating its intention to solve the case according to legal precedent and that its sentencing will depend on Washington's diplomatic efforts.

   "North Korea knows it may draw international criticism if it unjustly handles the case," Yang said. "After the trial, North Korea can decide whether to grant them a political pardon depending on developments in its relations with the U.S."