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2009/05/21 10:59 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 55 (May 21, 2009)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

North Korea Sets Date for Trial of Two U.S. Journalists

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- After weeks of silence, North Korea has decided to take legal action against two U.S. female journalists detained for illegally entering the country. The North's state media said on May 14 the American reporters will stand trial on June 4 under the pertinent law of the socialist country.

   Pyongyang's latest announcement was terse but signaled determination to pursue a trial. It followed its April 24 announcement that the North will try the Americans according to the results of its investigation into their charges of illegal entry and unspecified "hostile acts."

   As expected, the United States responded quickly, urging the North to immediately release the Americans, amid hope Pyongyang's decision to try them signaled their early release.

   Analysts speculate the sensitive case may spark dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington amid deadlocked multilateral disarmament talks to end the North's nuclear ambitions. They also suspect North Korea may be following in the footsteps of Iran, which arrested, tried and released a female American journalist amid diplomatic contacts with the U.S. over the past few months.

   "The Central Court of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK/ North Korea) decided to try (the) American journalists on June 4 according to the indictment of the competent organ," the (North) Korean Central News Agency said in a one-sentence report.

   The American journalists -- Euna Lee and Laura Ling from San Francisco-based Current TV, started by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore -- were arrested by North Korean guards near the border with China on March 17. They were reportedly taken by North Korean soldiers along the Tumen River on the Chinese border while filming the North Korean side.

   Pyongyang confirmed the arrest on March 31 and said an investigation was underway into suspicions that they illegally entered the country and committed unspecified "hostile acts." On April 24, the North said the investigation was completed and that the journalists would be put on trial.

   According to North Korea's criminal law, foreigners who commit "hostility toward the Korean people" may be sent to labor camps for five to 10 years. Heavier punishments can be imposed depending on the seriousness of the crime.

   If convicted, the American reporters face up to 10 years in prison, unlike illegal entry, which is punishable by a few years' imprisonment. Seoul officials could not say whether this stipulation would apply to the journalists.

   But U.S. officials have urged North Korea to free the American journalists. On May 14, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on North Korea to immediately release the two American journalists. "We believe that the charges are baseless and should not have been brought, and that these two young women should be released immediately," Clinton told reporters.

   David Dadge, the head of the International Press Institute, also urged North Korea to free the reporters following the example of Iran. "Iran's trial of Roxana Saberi was a farce, but at least the appellate court did the right thing in setting her free," Dadge said in a statement.

   He called on North Korea to "avoid more political theater and do the same with Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who are innocent victims of North Korea's desire to gain political leverage in its ongoing negotiations with the United States."

   Days later, the U.S. State Department repeated call for North Korea's release of the journalists. "We remain concerned about their welfare and hope they can be returned to their families in the U.S. as soon as possible," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said. "We continue to work on this matter through a number of channels."

   Kelly was discussing the separate visits to Euna Lee and Laura Ling by Swedish ambassador Mats Foyer on May 15. It was the second consular access as the Swedish envoy to Pyongyang met with them the first time on March 30. The Swedish Embassy handles consular affairs involving American citizens in North Korea, as Washington does not have diplomatic relations with the North.

   Radio Free Asia reported that the family members of Ling and Lee recently visited the U.S. State Department, a visit that coincided with Saberi's release.

   Saberi, who worked freelance for news organizations including National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp., went on a hunger strike for two weeks in her cell to protest her eight-year sentence. She was detained in January for not possessing proper press credentials.

   Observers believe North Korea's decision on the American journalists is politically motivated, as the administration of Barack Obama has so far remained cool towards a series of provocations by Pyongyang.

   The U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, Stephen Bosworth, skipped North Korea in his Asian tour last week. The U.S. State Department said it is too early for Bosworth to visit North Korea. North Korea rejected Bosworth's proposal to visit Pyongyang in early March.

   Some analysts say North Korea may try to use the reporters as a means of establishing bilateral contact with the U.S. amid escalating tensions since its rocket launch on April 5.

   North Korea withdrew from the six-party talks -- involving South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia -- on ending its nuclear programs in response to the U.N. Security Council's rebuke of the launch, which Pyongyang says was part of a legitimate space program to orbit a satellite.

   Pyongyang has also threatened to conduct further nuclear and ballistic missile tests and restart its disabled nuclear facilities unless the Security Council apologizes.

   U.S. President Barack Obama in early May expressed concerns about the American journalists held in North Korea and Iran, saying he was "especially concerned about the citizens from our own country currently under detention abroad: individuals such as Roxana Saberi in Iran, and Euna Lee and Laura Ling in North Korea."

   Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, before Saberi's release, wrote a letter to the Iranian appeals court to urge it to be fair in handling her case.

   Two Americans were detained in North Korea briefly in the 1990s before being released after visits to Pyongyang by Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, then a U.S. congressman. In 1994, North Korea detained a U.S. pilot whose military chopper was shot down after straying across the border. Another American citizen, Evan Hunziker, was held for three months in 1996 on suspicion of spying after swimming in the Yalu River bordering North Korea and China.

  (END)