SEOUL, South Korea - 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 would 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 come 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 United Nations 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 yesterday. 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 that North Korea could use the trial of the Americans to better its hand in the weeks before President 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 in to Pyongyang's desire for direct talks.
The United States 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 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 United States, analysts said.
During his campaign, Obama said he would be open to direct talks if it helped denuclearization. He has supported the Bush administration 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."