US Journalists on Trial

North Korea announces the trial of two U.S. journalists, and analysts say the move signals a bid for direct talks with Washington.
2009-06-04
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Detained U.S. journalists Euna Lee (L) and Laura Ling (R), from file photos released on March 19, 2009.
Detained U.S. journalists Euna Lee (L) and Laura Ling (R), from file photos released on March 19, 2009.
AFP
UPDATED JUNE 4

SEOUL—Two U.S. journalists were set to go on trial in North Korea today for entering the country illegally and committing “hostile acts,” further straining ties that are already at their lowest ebb in years.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said Thursday that the trial would begin at 3 p.m. (2 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Thursday) in Pyongyang Central Court, the highest court in North Korea. No further information was available.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested March 17 while researching an article on North Korean immigrants in China for San Francisco-based Current TV, a media venture started by former U.S. vice president Al Gore.

They were immediately taken from the country’s remote north and brought to the capital, Pyongyang.

Ling’s mother, Mary Ling, called for clemency.

“We implore North Korea to set them free,” she said in an interview on Thursday.

“She asked us to help secure her release. She said the only way to achieve that is for the two countries to communicate with each other,” Mary Ling said, speaking in Mandarin Chinese.

When her daughter’s call came on May 29, “I started to cry and couldn’t stop … I am hoping against hope. For my daughter … I have to be brave. I keep telling myself that.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the allegations “baseless,” and Washington has called for their release. They could be sentenced to hard labor if convicted.

Tensions high

Washington and Pyongyang have no formal diplomatic ties, and tensions are running high.

In the last two months, Pyongynag has conducted a second nuclear weapons test, launched six short-range missiles, scrapped international disarmament negotiations, and may have restarted its plutonium reprocessing plant.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this week that the regime appears to be preparing the launch of another long-range missile.

Experts suggest the journalists' detention and trial have been carefully timed to allow Pyongyang more negotiating room in dealings with Washington.

John Feffer, of the New Mexico-based International Relations Center, called the decision to try Lee and Ling an attempt to force the U.S. into direct dialogue with North Korea.

Larry Niksch, a specialist in Asian affairs at the U.S. Congressional Research Service, said Pyongyang may not intend to hold the journalists for very long.

Niksch said North Korea would likely force Lee and Ling to plead guilty to the charges and then release them.

But Daniel Sneider, assistant director of the Asia Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, said recent weapons tests by North Korea have complicated the issue.

“It is not a major issue right now. They’ve got to first deal with the nuclear weapon situation, so I think it is all up to North Korea to release them,” he said.

Clemency urged
Journalists-1-305.jpg
Laura Ling’s family from left to right: mother Mary Ling, father Doug Ling, and sister Lisa Ling. RFA/Xiao Rong
In a statement, the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders urged North Korean authorities to be lenient with Lee and Ling.

"We appeal to the North Korean authorities to show the utmost clemency, and we hope the trial will result in the acquittal and release of the two American journalists," Reporters Without Borders said.

"We urge the judges trying the case to follow the example set by their Iranian counterparts, who released U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi last month."

Reporters Without Borders and the International Women's Media Foundation today petitioned North Korea's Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York, calling for the women's release.

The petition was signed by more than 1,800 journalists, bloggers, and free speech activists, the group said.

Swedish envoy

Swedish Ambassador Mats Foyer, acting on behalf of the U.S. in North Korea in the absence of diplomatic relations, met separately with Lee and Ling on June 1, according to State Department spokesman Robert Wood.

It was the third time that Foyer met with the two reporters since their arrest. Through an earlier meeting, Foyer was able to send a letter from Ling to her family.

The United States backed South Korea in its three-year war against North Korea in the early 1950s, and no formal peace treaty has ever been signed.

Washington also maintains 28,500 troops in South Korea to help enforce a cease-fire established in 1953.

Original reporting by Xiao Rong for RFA’s Mandarin service and by S.K. Lee and J.M. Noh for RFA’s Korean service. Mandarin service director: Jenifer Chou. Acting Korean service
director: Francis Huh. Translation by Soo-il Chun. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes and Sarah Jackson-Han.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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