- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 11, 2009

SEOUL (AP) | North Korea might release two convicted American journalists if the United States offers a gesture such as an official apology, a U.S.-based scholar who visited Pyongyang said in interviews published Friday.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee were detained in March near the North Korean border with China and sentenced last month to 12 years of hard labor for entering the country illegally and for “hostile acts.” The two work for former Vice President Al Gore’s California-based Current TV media group.

University of Georgia political scientist Han Park said that the two are being kept at a guesthouse in the North Korean capital, and the delay in sending them to a prison labor camp may be an attempt to seek talks with Washington on their release.

“North Korea’s move not to carry out the sentence suggests that it could release them through a dialogue with the United States and they could be set free at an early date, depending on the U.S. gesture,” Mr. Park said in a interview with South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper.

Mr. Park, originally from South Korea, arrived Thursday in Seoul following a trip to Pyongyang.

Separately, Mr. Park told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency that the issue of the journalists could be resolved if the U.S. government offers an official apology and promises such things won’t happen again.

He also predicted that Washington and Pyongyang could hold a dialogue soon over the journalists’ release and their return to the U.S., according to Yonhap. No time frame for a possible meeting was given.

“I heard from North Korean officials that the American journalists were doing fine at a guest house in Pyongyang,” Mr. Park told the JoongAng Ilbo.

Mr. Park said North Korean officials were angry at the journalists for trying to produce a program critical of the isolated communist country.

Attempts to reach Mr. Park in Seoul were unsuccessful.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that the reporters have expressed “great remorse for this incident.”

Mrs. Clinton called on North Korea to grant the two amnesty and allow them to quickly return home to their families. She said “everyone is very sorry that it happened.”

A South Korean who helped organize the journalists’ reporting trip to China, the Rev. Chun Ki-won, said in April that Miss Ling and Mrs. Lee traveled to the border region with North Korea to interview women and children who had fled the impoverished country.

Mr. Park’s comments came days after Miss Ling told her sister, journalist Lisa Ling, during a 20-minute telephone call that a government pardon is their only hope for freedom.

In California, Lisa Ling said Thursday that her sister called Tuesday to say she and Mrs. Lee had broken the law in North Korea when they were captured.

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