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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."