By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 4, 2009
TOKYO, June 3 -- The day after North Korea exploded its second nuclear device, authorities in Pyongyang did something less inflammatory: They allowed Laura Ling, an American journalist detained in March along the North Korean border with China, to call her sister Lisa in the United States.
"She said the only way that she may be able to get released is if our two countries communicate," television personality Lisa Ling told CNN's Larry King on Monday, noting that the four-minute phone call was the first time she had heard her sister's voice in 2 1/2 months. "She is extremely scared."
Facing perhaps 10 years in a labor camp, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, TV reporters accused of illegally entering North Korea and committing unspecified "hostile acts," are to go on trial Thursday in Pyongyang in a case that has become part of a nail-biting face-off between North Korea and much of the rest of the world.
The North, defying the U.N. Security Council, the United States, and historical allies China and Russia, fired a long-range missile into the Pacific Ocean in April, detonated an underground nuclear bomb in May and now appears to be preparing to test-launch an intercontinental ballistic missile that might be capable of hitting Alaska.
The government of the ailing Kim Jong Il -- in the throes of a succession process, with his third son apparently getting the nod to someday ascend to the position of absolute ruler -- has also threatened war against South Korea and declared the truce that ended the Korean War in 1953 null and void.
Yet Laura Ling's post-nuclear-test phone call suggests to analysts that the case of the two journalists could be used by the North as a way to walk back from confrontation and perhaps reopen dialogue with the U.S. government. Lee was also allowed to call her family in the United States.
North Korea has a history of pushing to the brink and then seeking rewards -- food, fuel and diplomatic concessions -- for agreeing to sit down to talk. Permitting the phone calls was highly unusual for one of the world's most repressive governments. North Korea keeps an estimated 200,000 of its citizens in concentration camps, denying them contact with relatives.
"Until I heard about the communications, I would have been prepared to say that if the trial takes place, the women will be convicted and sentenced," said Charles L. "Jack" Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington and a special envoy to North Korea under President George W. Bush.
Pritchard said that Pyongyang's willingness to allow phone calls "has a bearing on what the North Koreans will do."
That view was shared by Hong Jung-wook, a ruling party lawmaker in the South Korean National Assembly and a member of its defense committee.
"North Korea has left the door ajar," Hong said. "Because the American reporters can be used as the trigger for bilateral dialogue with the United States, the North is not likely to mistreat them. The North Koreans will release the women when the timing is most favorable for North Korea's eventual purpose of engaging the United States."
The families of Ling and Lee, who this week broke their silence with joint appearances on "Larry King Live" and NBC's "Today" show, said the two women say they have been treated "fairly" while in custody.
The Swedish ambassador in Pyongyang has visited them three times, and they send and receive letters through him. The United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea.
Ling and Lee were working for Current TV, a cable and Web network co-founded by former vice president Al Gore, when they were detained March 17 by North Korean soldiers along the border with China. The reporters were working on a story about North Koreans who flee the country, but the circumstances of their arrest are not clear.
In television appearances this week, their families said they do not know what happened on the border but offered apologies to the North Korean government and asked that the women be released as soon as possible.
"If at any point the girls went into North Korea, then we apologize on their behalf," Lisa Ling said. "They never intended to do so, and we are sorry."
She said her sister has an ulcer and needs medication for it. Lee's husband, Michael Saldate, said that their daughter, Hannah, 4, started crying this week between television appearances, saying, "I want to see my mommy."
Determining what legal procedures will be used in the reporters' trial is a difficult task, because North Korean courts -- like every institution in the country -- are controlled by top government officials.
"Trying to determine the nature of the law applied in their trial is meaningless," said Lee Jae-won, a lawyer in Seoul and chairman of a committee that studies human rights in North Korea for the Korean Lawyers Association. "It is going to be a political trial."
Experts on North Korea's diplomatic maneuvers say the trial, sentencing and time served in a labor camp are all linked to the evolving relationship between North Korea and the United States.
"Given that North Korea is now moving to launch an ICBM missile, I expect that it would be a while before the reporters return home," said Koh Yu-whan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
North Korea has previously released Americans who illegally entered the country. Ten years ago, Bill Richardson, then a member of Congress and now governor of New Mexico, traveled to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of an American who got drunk and swam across a river into North Korea.
"We got him out," Richardson said on CNN this week. "Unfortunately, he committed suicide after I got him out."
Richardson said he expects that the reporters will be tried and sentenced within "a day or two."
Once that is over, he added, "that's when you start to negotiate, when you start maneuvering."
He also said it is a good omen that both North Korea and the U.S. government have been restrained in their comments on the reporters' case -- and that the North allowed the reporters to call their families. But he made no predictions.
The North Koreans "don't think like we do," he said, adding: "They are in their own world."
The fate of the reporters has received widespread attention around the United States. Vigils were planned in several cities Wednesday night, which is about the time the women go on trial in Pyongyang.
Special correspondent Stella Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.