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 that the women will stand trial Thursday 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 May 25 and punctuated the defiance with an array of short-range missile tests. Diplomats at the U.N. are discussing a new Security Council resolution.
Analysts warned that North Korea could use the trial of the Americans to better its hand in the weeks before President Barack 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.