N Korea puts reporters on trial

2009-06-04 10:02

Seoul - North Korea put two US journalists on trial on Thursday on charges of illegally entering the state with "hostile intent", in a case that could worsen tension with Washington after Pyongyang's nuclear test last week.

The journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling of the US media outlet Current TV, were arrested in March near the border between China and North Korea while working on a story. The TV network was co-founded by former US Vice President Al Gore.

North Korea's KCNA news agency said in a one-sentence dispatch that the trial would begin at 06:00 GMT at one of the country's highest courts.

Experts say the pair could face a sentence of 10 years or more of hard labour in the reclusive state. They add a guilty verdict is almost certain in a North Korean justice system that protects the unquestioned rule of leader Kim Jong-il.

Analysts said the two had become bargaining chips in high-stakes negotiations with the United States, which has long sought to end the North's nuclear ambitions.

"The country is being very careful in dealing with the two US citizens and is aware of international attention and the implications of the case," said Park Jeong-woo, a law professor at Kookmin University and an expert in the North's legal system.

Russia, which wields veto power at the UN Security Council, has suggested it may back economic sanctions to push Pyongyang into scrapping its nuclear arms programme.

Diplomats in New York have been in closed-door negotiations for more than a week on a Security Council resolution that would broaden sanctions imposed on North Korea after its only prior nuclear test in October 2006.

North Korea also appears ready to increase tension through tests of a long-range missile that could reach US territory and of a mid-range missile that can hit all of South Korea and most of Japan. The North was punished by the United Nations for an April rocket launch, seen as a disguised missile test.

Deputy US Secretary of State James Steinberg said after meeting South Korean President Lee Myung-bak that Washington would not repeat a previous mistake of rewarding the North with negotiations for making provocations.

Pyongyang also needed to realise that China, the closest North Korea can claim as a major ally, had been shifting from its previous reluctance to join international censure of the North's nuclear and missile tests, Steinberg said in comments provided by Lee's office.

Tears and worries

Little has been heard of the two journalists since their arrest but they were seen last month by Sweden's ambassador to Pyongyang on behalf of Washington, which has no diplomatic ties with North Korea.

"When I first got here, I cried so much. Now, I cry less," Ling was quoted as saying in a letter sent to her sister in May.

Human rights groups have said jails in impoverished North Korea are brutal, with torture common and prisoners often killed through malnutrition and abuse.

Prior to the trial, the families of the journalists called for North Korea to quickly release Lee, who has a four-year-old daughter, and Ling, who was being treated for an ulcer.

"We aren't certain of the details of what happened on March 17, but we can say with absolute certainty that when the girls left US soil, they never intended to set foot onto North Korean territory," they said in a statement.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the charges "baseless" and urged their immediate release.

North Korea has also held a South Korean worker in custody for about three months at a joint factory park located just inside the heavily fortified border dividing the peninsula on suspicion of insulting Pyongyang's leaders.

The last high profile case of a US citizen arrested for crossing into the North came in 1996. Evan Hunziker was held for three months on charges of spying.

Bill Richardson, a former official in the Bill Clinton administration and now governor of New Mexico, went to the North to secure his release and help settle a $5 000 "hotel bill" imposed by the North to cover the cost of Hunziker's detention.