- The Washington Times - Monday, June 1, 2009

SEOUL — As global powers debate how to punish North Korea for its nuclear defiance, two American journalists seized nearly three months ago face a trial this week in Pyongyang on charges that could land them in one of the country’s notorious labor camps.

North Korean guards detained Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore’s Current TV media venture, at the northeastern border with China on March 17. Activists who helped organize their trip say they had been reporting on North Korean women and children who fled to China for an uncertain life as refugees.

Pyongyang accused the Americans of engaging in “hostile acts” and crossing into communist North Korea illegally, and announced two weeks ago the women would stand trial June 4 in the nation’s top court. Legal experts say conviction for “hostility” or espionage could mean five to 10 years in a labor camp.

Their detention and trial come at a sensitive time in the diplomatic scramble to rein in an increasingly belligerent Pyongyang, which conducted an underground nuclear test last Monday and punctuated the defiance with an array of short-range missile tests. Diplomats at the U.N. are discussing a new Security Council resolution.

North Korea also appears to be preparing to launch a long-range missile, a South Korean defense official confirmed Sunday. He asked not to be named, citing the sensitivity of the issue. U.S. military officials say there are signs of activity at North Korea’s nuclear reactor that could indicate work to restart the facility and resume production of nuclear fuel.

Analysts warned that North Korea could use the trial of the Americans to improve its hand in the weeks before Mr. Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak hold a White House summit on June 16.

“Having two journalists detained in the North leaves the U.S. very little maneuvering room since Washington now has to take the women’s safety into account,” said Yoon Deok-min, a professor at South Korea’s state-run Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.

Analyst Paik Hak-soon called North Korea’s nuclear gambit a ploy to put “maximum pressure” on the Obama administration to cave into Pyongyang’s desire for direct talks.

The U.S. and North Korea, which fought on opposite sides of the bitter three-year Korean War in the early 1950s, do not have diplomatic relations. Washington also has 28,500 troops in South Korea to help monitor the cease-fire laid out in a truce signed in 1953.

Isolated North Korea, which has few allies and has seen South Korean aid dry up since Mr. Lee took office last year, is desperate to normalize ties with the U.S., analysts said.

During his campaign, Mr. Obama said he would be open to direct talks if it helps denuclearization. He has supported the Bush policy of engaging the North through international disarmament negotiations - talks Pyongyang walked away from in April.

The trial of Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee could provide a diplomatic opening for direct talks, Mr. Paik said. “Had it not been for the journalists, sending a high-level envoy for direct talks with Pyongyang could create the impression the U.S. is yielding to North Korea’s provocations.”

Mr. Gore himself may head to North Korea to lobby for the reporters’ release, the TBS television network in Tokyo said Saturday, citing unnamed sources. Messages left with Mr. Gore’s spokeswoman, Kalee Kreider, went unanswered Sunday, and San Francisco-based Current TV has refused to comment about the case.

Meanwhile, Ms. Lee and Ms. Ling’s families have begun speaking out and are slated to appear on NBC’s “Today” show and CNN’s “Larry King Live” on Monday.

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