Tuesday, March 31, 2009

DPRK to Prosecute US Journalists For Illegally Crossing Into Territory

N Korea to try US journalists

Two female US journalists, recently arrested in North Korea, will be put on trial for "hostile acts" and for illegally entering the country.

"The illegal entry of US reporters into the DPRK (North Korea) and their suspected hostile acts have been confirmed by evidence and their statements," the official Korean Central News Agency said.

It said "a competent organ" was continuing an investigation and "at the same time, making a preparation for indicting them at a trial on the basis of the already confirmed suspicions."

Euna Lee, a Korean-American, and Laura Ling, a Chinese-American, were detained before dawn on 17 March along the Tumen River border with China while working on a story about refugees fleeing the hardline communist state.

Tried for spying?

The news agency said the pair, who work for Current TV in California, would be allowed consular access and would be treated according to international law.

It did not specify what was meant by "hostile acts" or say when they might appear in court, but media reports in South Korea have said they could be tried for spying.

The announcement of a trial comes amid high tensions in the region over Pyongyang's plans to launch a communications satellite, possibly this weekend.

Washington and its allies say the launch is a pretext to test a long-range missile in violation of UN resolutions.

"The United States continues to work on this matter through diplomatic channels," said a senior White House official who asked not to be named.

"We have seen the brief North Korean press report (on the trial)," the official told AFP. "We have no higher priority than the protection of American citizens abroad."

The State Department said earlier on Monday that a Swedish envoy acting on behalf of Washington, which has no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, had visited the journalists over the weekend.

"A representative of the Swedish embassy met with each one individually," spokesperson Gordon Duguid said, giving no details of their condition.

US officials said it was the first time that Sweden had been given consular access to them.

N Korea raising the stakes

The State Department said last week the North Koreans had assured US officials that the pair would be treated well.

South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo has said the pair were taken to a top-security guest house on the outskirts of Pyongyang a day after they were seized.

"The questioning is likely to focus on having the two journalists confess to committing espionage," the paper quoted a Seoul intelligence source as saying.

Kim Yong-Hyun, a North Korea studies professor at Dongguk University, said Pyongyang appears to be raising the stakes before its missile launch.

He told AFP the latest move against the journalists, and the detention of a South Korean at a joint industrial estate, "are seen as an indirect message asking the US to come out aggressively for talks.

"By starting legal action officially (against the journalists), North Korea revealed its intention to use them for negotiations with the US after the missile launch," Kim said.

"North Korea will release them anyway. However it may use them as virtual hostages to deter punitive measures by the US over its launch."

In a separate case, the North detained a South Korean at the Kaesong joint industrial estate in the communist state for allegedly criticising its political system and encouraging a local worker to defect.

North Korea has in the past freed Americans it has detained but only after diplomatic intervention.

In 1996 US congressman Bill Richardson negotiated the release of US citizen Evan Hunziker, who had been detained for three months on suspicion of spying after swimming the Yalu river.

Richardson, who is now the governor of New Mexico, in 1994 helped negotiate the release of a US military helicopter pilot shot down after straying into North Korea.

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