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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 will 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 comes 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 North Korea could use the trial of the Americans to better its hand in the weeks before Obama and South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak hold a White House summit 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 Lee took office last year, is desperate to normalize ties with the U.S., analysts said.
During his campaign, 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 Ling and Lee could provide a diplomatic opening for direct talks, 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.”
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 Gore spokeswoman Kalee Kreider went unanswered Sunday, and San Francisco-based Current TV has refused to comment about the case.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has gone twice to Pyongyang to successfully negotiate the release of detained Americans, told MSNBC last week he believes North Korea wants to use Lee and Ling as bargaining chips.
But he noted “hopeful” signs they may be released soon after the trial. Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, predicted they’ll be released after Washington and Pyongyang hold talks, some 10 to 15 days after the trial.
Meanwhile, Lee and Ling’s families began speaking out, working in tandem with mounting movements in cities and online — similar to those waged for Roxana Saberi, an American journalist released by Iran last month after originally being sentenced to eight years in prison for alleged spying.
Two weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who earlier called the charges “baseless,” urged graduates at Barnard College in New York to wage Web-based campaigns for the reporters’ release.
“We have two young women journalists right now in prison in North Korea, and you can get busy on the Internet and let the North Koreans know that we find that absolutely unacceptable,” she said.
On the day the trial is set to begin in Pyongyang, candlelight vigils will be held across the U.S. The families of Lee and Ling — including their parents, siblings, husbands and children — will appear on NBC’s “Today” show and CNN’s “Larry King Live” on Monday.
“To say that this has been stressful would be to grossly understate how hard this has been. Our families have been very quiet because of the extreme sensitivity of the situation, but given the fact that our girls are in the midst of a global nuclear standoff, we cannot wait any longer,” sister Lisa Ling, a TV journalist who herself reported in North Korea in 2005, wrote in a message posted to a Facebook page for Ling and Lee.
“Help us stand up for truth and two girls who just wanted to tell the world a story,” she said.
Laura Ling’s husband, Iain Clayton, said he writes Ling a letter every day and has sent her “things she loves — like dried squid and beef jerky.” He described his nervousness and loneliness for her in the entry posted on the “Larry King Live” Web site, noting that pillows she recently ordered for their new house had just arrived.
But the most poignant words were those from Ling herself, who wrote in a letter dated May 15 that she “cried so much” the first few days in North Korea.
“Now, I cry less. I try very hard to think about positive things, but sometimes it is hard too,” she wrote in the letter relayed to her family two weeks ago and read aloud by her cousin Angie Wang at a New York vigil May 21.
The 32-year-old described a routine of stretching and meditation, and said she was allowed out some days to get fresh air.
“I breathe deeply and think about positive things that have happened in the day. For example, I think I’m lucky I made it through another day. I’m lucky my family is working so hard to get me released,” it said. “Know that I’m thinking of you and dreaming about being reunited with you all again.”
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