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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.

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The two have been held in what's described as a "state guest house" near Pyongyang. They have received just two visits by a Swedish diplomat representing US interests in North Korea in the absence of relations between Washington and Pyongyang.

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An encouraging sign is that recently they were allowed one telephone call to relatives.

Not publicly linked to current disputes

Neither the US nor North Korea has attempted, in public, to link the case of Ling and Lee to the raging controversy over the North's nuclear and missile tests, but no one misses the connection.

Lisa Ling, Ling's older sister and a veteran correspondent for the National Geographic channel and the "Oprah" show, has finally spoken out after remaining quiet.

"You'd have to be hiding under a rock not to see what's going on in the Korean Peninsula," said Lisa Ling, in one of a number of television interviews. "The girls are essentially in the middle of this nuclear standoff."

Ms. Ling, who provided a highly negative glimpse into North Korea in a tough documentary she did for National Geographic, refrained from any hint of criticism during an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live" show.

"If, at any point, the girls went into North Korea, then we apologize on their behalf," she said. "They never intended to do so."

Will they be released soon?

Activists try to remain optimistic about the release of both women, if not right away then in the not-too-distant future.

"Eventually, they are going to be released," says Kim Sang-hun, who has worked for years on North Korean human rights. "That's for sure."

As for the trial, "they may follow the legal procedure, but it doesn't have much meaning," says Mr. Kim. "It's conceivable, he says, "that they will be released at the trial as a gesture, for North Korea may be seeking some kind of appeasement with the United States."

Clare Park, at the Citizens' Alliance for Human Rights in Seoul, hopes North Korea will see the public-relations advantage of letting the women go home.

"The longer North Korea keeps these women, the more they will get criticism from the international community," she says. "North Korea won't do any harm to them. If North Korea does any kind of action, the fact will be known to the rest of the world.

Ha, however, is not so confident. "Considering the recent political situation is so very unfortunate," he says, "I think the North Korea regime cannot free them soon."