North Korea Says Two U.S. Journalists Will Stand Trial

March 31, 2009 - 4:59 AM
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Seoul, South Korea (AP) - Two American journalists suspected of committing "hostile acts" against North Korea and entering the country illegally will be indicted and put on trial, Pyongyang's state-run agency said Tuesday. Conviction on the charges could mean more than 10 years in a prison labor camp.
 
Euna Lee and Laura Ling, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's San Francisco-based Current TV media venture, were detained by North Korean border guards March 17 during a reporting trip to China.
 
A preliminary investigation confirmed the accusations against the reporters and the two will stand trial, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said Tuesday, without citing a date for the trial.
 
"The illegal entry of U.S. reporters into the DPRK and their suspected hostile acts have been confirmed by evidence and their statements," the report said, referring to the country by the initials of its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
 
The report did not elaborate on what "hostile acts" the journalists allegedly committed, and experts said it was difficult to determine which punishment would be applied if the women are convicted.
 
Conviction of illegal entry carries up to three years in prison in North Korea, according to the Information Center on North Korea, an agency affiliated with Seoul's Unification Ministry.
 
The more serious crimes of espionage or "hostility toward North Korean people" are punishable by five to 10 years in a prison camp -- or more than 10 years in some cases.
 
Their detentions come at a time of mounting tensions in the region as North Korea prepares to launch a rocket over the objections of its neighbors.
 
Pyongyang has declared it will send a satellite into space sometime between April 4 and 8, but the U.S. and other nations suspect the launch will be a test of the country's long-range missile technology.
 
The U.S., South Korea and Japan have warned Pyongyang it risks sanctions by carrying out a launch prohibited under a U.N. Security Council resolution that bans the North from ballistic activity.
 
North Korean authorities also have custody of a South Korean citizen who works in the two Koreas' joint economic zone in Kaesong, just across the heavily militarized border, Seoul's Unification Ministry said Monday.
 
The man is accused of breaking North Korean law by denouncing Pyongyang's political system and inciting North Korean workers to flee the communist country, ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said.
 
Lee said South Korean officials do not consider the detentions related.
 
North Korea's announcement of the American reporters' detention was an unusual departure for Pyongyang, which in the past has kept quiet about any foreigners in its custody.
 
Past detentions of Americans have required diplomatic intervention. In 1996, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, then a congressman, went to North Korea to help secure the release of an American detained for three months on spying charges. In 1994, he helped arrange the freedom of a U.S. soldier whose helicopter strayed into North Korea.
 
KCNA said consular officials will be allowed contact with the detained reporters during the investigation. The suspects will be treated "according to the relevant international laws," it said.
 
Washington, which does not have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, relies on the Swedish Embassy in the North Korean capital to represent the U.S.
 
A Swedish diplomat met with the journalists individually over the weekend, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said Monday in Washington. Duguid provided no other details Monday about the journalists or the weekend visit, citing privacy concerns.
 
In Stockholm, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Cecilia Julin confirmed that the meetings took place but declined to provide any details.
 
The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed concern over the North's plans to put the two on trial. "We call on the North Korean government to explain the circumstances of the detention of these two journalists," said Bob Dietz, the U.S.-based group's Asia program coordinator.
 
An activist who helped arrange the reporters' trip to China said they were planning to interview North Korean defectors living in border areas. The Rev. Chun Ki-won of the Durihana Mission said he last spoke to Lee by phone early March 17 when they were near the Tumen River dividing China and North Korea.
 
The reporters' Korean-Chinese guide and a third American, Current TV cameraman Mitch Koss, reportedly escaped arrest but were detained by Chinese border guards. Koss since has left the country, China's Foreign Ministry said last week.
 
Telephones were not answered at Current TV on Monday and there was no response to messages. Ling's sister, Lisa Ling, a correspondent for National Geographic Channel's "Explorer," has declined to comment.
 
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Associated Press writer Jae-soon Chang contributed to this report.