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North Korea to put US journalists on trial Thursday

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, nabbed along the Chinese-North Korean border, have become players in a much larger drama.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 2009

In these undated photos, Laura Ling (r.) and Euna Lee, reporters for former US Vice President Al Gore's Current TV media venture, are shown.

Yonhap/AP/File

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Like a subplot in a great drama, two American journalists go on trial in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on Thursday, even as North Korea prepares for more tests of its long-range missile and possibly another nuclear test as well.

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The great question is the degree to which Laura Ling and Euna Lee have unwittingly become pawns in a huge bargaining game since North Korean soldiers picked them up on March 17 as they were filming along China's Tumen River border with North Korea.

"The trial depends on how useful the North Korean regime feels they are for political purposes," says Ha Tae-keung, president of Open Radio for North Korea, which broadcasts from Seoul, South Korea, for two hours daily into North Korea.

However North Korean strategists see it, one outcome of the trial is certain. No one imagines anything other than a guilty verdict for both of them, accused of "hostile acts" and "illegal entry" as they sought to do a story on human rights abuses. The two journalists work for Al Gore's Current TV network.

The focal point of their mission was to interview female defectors, often forced into marriages and prostitution in China, and they were believed to be hoping to film defectors as they crossed the ice on the narrow, shallow river in harsh winter weather.

One-day trial likely

No one expects, however, that the record of the trial will become public or that witnesses will come forward to provide evidence to show that they had not entered North Korea at the time of their arrest, but were either on the ice or on the Chinese side.

"Usually a trial in North Korea is one day," says Mr. Ha. "There is no debate." A prosecutor presents the charges and a lawyer nominally defends the accused, he says, but the defense is a formality in a session that is likely to be " very brief."

Just what happened when the two women got to the Tumen River is a mystery that their cameraman and producer, Mitch Koss, could clarify if he so chose. Mr. Koss escaped from the North Korean soldiers along with a Korean-Chinese guide suspected of having deliberately set them up for arrest.

Koss, however, has remained totally silent, apparently on orders from Current TV and on the advice of the State Department.

While the court will almost certainly find both Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee guilty, probably of espionage charges, predictions as to the sentence range from years of hard labor to probation and suspension of jail time before they go home.

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