Two US journalists accused by North Korea of crossing into the country illegally from China and committing “hostile acts” will be tried on criminal charges, Pyongyang said yesterday.
Laura Ling (凌志美) and Euna Lee, who work for San Francisco-based Current TV, a media venture founded by former US vice president Al Gore, were arrested on March 17 near the North Korean border while reporting on refugees living in China.
Ling is a Taiwanese-American whose family emigrated to the US several years ago and now lives in Los Angeles.
North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency confirmed their detention late last month, saying indictments were being prepared as an investigation into suspected illegal entry and unspecified “hostile acts” continued.
A dispatch yesterday said the investigation had concluded, and the journalists would stand trial “on the basis of the confirmed crimes.” It did not say exactly what charges they face or when the trial would take place.
The Americans' prolonged detention and pending trial come amid mounting diplomatic tensions between Pyongyang and the international community, including the US, over its rogue nuclear program.
Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, called the Americans another “negotiating chip” for Pyongyang as it embarks on negotiations with Washington and its allies over the nuclear impasse.
Putting them on trial “means that they want to increase their pressure on the US, much in line with their recent tactics,” he said yesterday.
Communist North Korea is one of the world's most isolated nations, and details about the circumstances of the two Americans' capture remain scant more than a month after they disappeared along the Tumen River dividing China and northeastern North Korea.
A South Korean who helped organize their reporting trip, the Reverend Chun Ki-won of Durihana Mission, said the women traveled to the border region to interview women and children who had fled impoverished North Korea and were trying to build new lives in China.
He said he warned them repeatedly to stay away from the long and often unmarked border. Armed North Korean guards are known to threaten journalists who venture to the region to get a glimpse into the reclusive nation.
A cameraman, Mitch Koss, and the group's guide apparently eluded the guards.
Under North Korea's criminal code, conviction for illegal entry could mean up to three years in a labor camp.
Espionage or “hostility toward North Koreans” — possible crimes that could be considered “hostile acts” — could mean five to 10 years in prison, South Korean legal expert Moon Dae-hong said.
Past detentions of Americans have required diplomatic help. In 1994, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, then a congressman, went to Pyongyang to secure the release of a soldier captured after his helicopter strayed into North Korea. He went back in 1996 to help free an American held for three months on spying charges after going for a swim in the Yalu, another river dividing North Korea and China.
Washington, which does not have diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, has relied so far on the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang to negotiate on its behalf. A Swedish envoy has met with both journalists, US officials said.
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