North Korea Puts Two U.S. Journalists on Trial

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 4, 2009; 9:25 AM

TOKYO, June 4 -- 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," were scheduled to go on trial Thursday afternoon 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.

In a brief but unusual announcement for the secretive North, the country's official news service said the trial would begin at 3 p.m. (2 a.m. Thursday EDT). No other information was released.

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 the day after North Korea exploded its second nuclear device, authorities in Pyongyang did something less inflammatory: They allowed 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."

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."

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