Trial of US journalists begins in North Korea

June 3, 2009 7:42:43 PM PDT
Two American journalists accused of entering North Korea illegally and engaging in "hostile acts" faced the country's highest court Thursday for a trial on charges that could land them up to 10 years in a labor camp. Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gor 's California-based Current TV media venture, were arrested March 17 near the North Korean border while on a reporting trip to China.

North Korea announced in late April that the Americans were being investigated on criminal charges, and last month set a June 4 date for their trial at the Central Court in Pyongyang.

The trial comes at a time of mounting tensions on the Korean peninsula, with the communist regime launching a long-range rocket in April and conducting an underground nuclear test last week in defiance of international demands for restraint.

Even as ambassadors to the U.N. Security Council discussed how to punish the nation for the bold atomic test, there were indications that the North was preparing to test-fire a long-range missile from a west coast site, one capable of striking the U.S., officials said.

There were fears the women, jailed separately in the North Korean capital, may become pawns in political negotiations between North Korea and Washington.

The Korean War foes do not have diplomatic relations, and analysts called North Korea's recent belligerence a bid to grab President Barack Obama's attention and to speed up any direct negotiations.

"One explanation of North Korea's behavior is that Pyongyang is trying to catch Washington's attention. It believes the Obama administration has not made North Korea a priority," said David Straub of Stanford University's Korean studies program.

The reporters' families have pleaded for clemency, urging the two governments not to let politics decide their fate.

State-run media have not defined the exact charges against them, but South Korean legal experts said conviction for "hostility" or espionage could mean five to 10 years in one of North Korea's notoriously harsh labor camps.

The circumstances of their arrest remained unclear. The Current TV team had gone to the Chinese border city of Yanji to report on North Korean women and children who had crossed the border from northeast North Korea.

"Too many sad stories," Ling posted to Twitter days before her arrest.

They were arrested March 17 somewhere near the frozen Tumen River dividing North Korea and China while two others, a cameraman and their local guide, managed to evade the North Korean guards.

The families denied the allegations of illegal entry and "hostile acts."

"Anyone who knows my sister knows that there's nothing remotely hostile about her," TV journalist Lisa Ling, Laura Ling's older sister, told ABC News. "So we just hope that they see it the same way in North Korea."

She said the reporters were due back in the U.S. two days later.

"So whatever happened that day, it was not their intention to cross the border," Lisa Ling said. "We don't know if they actually did, but if at any point the crossed into North Korean territory, then we profusely apologize on their behalf because we know that they never intended to do that when they left the United States."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the charges against them "baseless." State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley called for their release Wednesday.

"We continue to consult with the families. And there is no higher priority that we have than protection of American civilians abroad. And we, again, hope that North Korea will forego this legal process and return them to the United States," he said in Washington.

Media groups also pressed for their release.

"We urge that their fate not be linked to the ongoing security situation on the Korean Peninsula," Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement. "Euna Lee and Laura Ling were acting as journalists, not criminals, and should be released."

Roxana Saberi, an American journalist who spent four months in an Iranian prison before being released May 11 on a suspended sentence for spying, urged the women to "remain strong."

"I haven't been to North Korea, but I understand it is even more of a closed state than the Islamic Republic of Iran," Saberi said in a statement.

"Still, if Laura and Euna's situation resembles anything like mine, I can imagine a little of what they might be wishing for: The presumption of innocence until proven guilty. A fair trial, with access to attorneys of their choice and the right to study what is claimed as evidence against them. More contact with their families, whom they probably worry are worrying about themselves!"

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