- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

Two American reporters who went on trial in North Korea Thursday provide additional leverage for the isolated nation as it challenges the world with nuclear and missile tests and prepares a successor for ailing leader Kim Jong-il, analysts say

Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee face sentences of up to 10 years if convicted on spying charges by North Korea’s highest court.

“I see no reason why North Korea wouldn’t use the reporters to extract political concessions,” said Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and specialist on the North Korean economy. “There will be a linkage between the reporters and weapons negotiations.”

Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee were arrested in March while reporting near the North Korean-Chinese border on refugees and trafficking in women from the isolated communist state.

They were working for Current TV, a California-based media company co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore.

The harsh sanctions are a way to test the Obama administration, said Lucie Morillion, Washington director of Reporters Without Borders USA.

“North Korea pushes other countries to the brink and then comes back when negotiations are opened,” Ms. Morillion said. “The two women could be kept in jail until the country decides to do another missile launch.”

The trial takes place amid a series of incidents that have driven tensions on the Korean peninsula to the highest level in years.

Last month, North Korea tested its second nuclear bomb in three years, launched a series of missiles and proclaimed that six-nation negotiations begun in the Bush administration were over. There are also indications that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who suffered a stroke last year, is preparing the ground for succession by his third son, Kim Jong-un.

In yet another provocative incident North and South Korea faced off for an hour in a border region off the peninsula’s western coast on Thursday.

The South said a Northern gunboat intruded into Southern territory but retreated after the South fired warning shots. Naval clashes in the Yellow sea are frequent this time of the year when the crab fishing season gets underway.

Daniel Sneider, associate research director at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University said he doubts the North will mix the reporters’ detainment and its nuclear activities.

“The nuclear issue is difficult as it is, and I don’t see North Korea extracting a concession for it from the situation with the reporters,” Mr. Sneider said.

He said, however, that if U.S.-Korean relations were going well, the journalists’ situation would be less grim.

Mr. Noland said that if the journalists are found guilty, North Korean authorities would probably demand a public apology.

In the most extreme scenario, he said the authorities will demand official diplomatic negotiations and seek recognition as a nuclear weapons state.

Fearing Ms. Lee and Ms. Ling would become bargaining chips, the families of the two journalists recently launched a nationwide campaign to call for their freedom.

Families, friends and colleagues of the reporters organized vigils in nine U.S. cities Wednesday night, said Dan Beckmann, who organized a Washington, D.C. event and is a former colleague of Ms. Ling.

It is not known whether the journalists had entered North Korea from China at the time of their arrest. The reporters’ families say the two had no intention of entering the country when they left the U.S.

“If at any point they committed a transgression, then our families are deeply, deeply sorry. We know the girls are sorry as well,” wrote Ms. Ling’s sister, Lisa Ling, in a message that was read at all vigils.

Andrew Salmon reported from Seoul.

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