North Korea silent about U.S. journalists' trial

Sunday, June 7, 2009

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea announced that two U.S. journalists were about to go on trial -- then came the mysterious silence.

The day passed Friday with no updates of the criminal proceedings that were supposed to begin Thursday for TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee. Instead, the secretive nation's news agency filed stories about Sweden's king, American "warmongers" and Syrian Embassy workers helping North Korean farmers weed bean fields.

The news blackout could mean the journalists -- arrested three months ago on the China-North Korean border -- were being used as bargaining chips. The North might be dragging out their trial as the communist leadership waits to see what kind of sanctions Washington and the U.N. will use to punish the nation for its latest nuclear blast and barrage of missile tests last week.

Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean expert at Dongguk University in Seoul, said Pyongyang will likely free the reporters and treat their release as a goodwill gesture that should be reciprocated with a special U.S. envoy visiting the isolated state.

"It shows how the North makes political judgments, which have nothing to do with laws," Koh said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday she was "incredibly concerned" about the plight of the two women. In working for their release, Clinton said she has spoken with foreign officials with influence in North Korea and explored the possibility of sending an envoy to the North, but suggested that no one would be sent during the trial.

The journalists were arrested March 17 as they were reporting about the trafficking of women. It's unclear if they strayed into the North or were grabbed by aggressive border guards who crossed into China.

Although the Americans were accused of illegally entering North Korea and unspecified "hostile acts," Pyongyong has yet to publicly announce the exact charges against them. South Korean legal experts have said a conviction for "hostility" or espionage could mean five to 10 years in a labor camp.

U.S. officials and others working for the reporters' release have said they've received no information about the defendants and even lacked independent confirmation about whether the trial has started. The North has said the proceedings wouldn't be open to foreign observers, including Swedish officials who act as Washington's proxy in Pyongyang because the two countries do not have diplomatic ties.

If found guilty, the women won't be allowed to appeal because the case is being heard in Pyongyang's high court, where decisions are final, said Choi Eun-suk, a professor on North Korean legal affairs at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in South Korea.

Choi said the reporters would likely be sentenced to more than five years but less than 10 years in a labor prison. Then the negotiations with the U.S. would begin, he said.

That's how previous trials for Americans played out. The most recent one involved Evan C. Hunziker, a man with alcohol, drug and legal problems. Apparently acting on a drunken dare, he swam across the Yalu River -- which marks the North's border with China -- and was arrested after farmers found the man, then 26, naked. He was accused of spying and detained for three months before being freed after negotiations with a special U.S. envoy.

The North Koreans wanted Hunziker to pay a $100,000 criminal fine but eventually agreed on a $5,000 payment to settle a bill for a hotel where he was detained.

In another case, Venezuelan poet Ali Lameda described to the human rights group Amnesty International in a written report his experience in a North Korean court that sentenced him to 20 years in a labor camp in 1967. Lameda, a member of the Venezuelan Communist Party, said he was working as a translator in Pyongyang when he was accused of spying, sabotage and infiltration -- allegations he denied.

No evidence, formal charges or specific allegations were presented during the one-day proceeding, he said. Instead, court officials repeatedly demanded that Lameda confess his guilt. A defense lawyer was assigned to him, but the attorney gave a long speech praising the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung before suggesting his client be sentenced to 20 years. Lameda was released after six years and left the country, he said.

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