North Korea silent on American journalists' trial

Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg met with Chinese officials in Beijing Friday after having met S. Korea's president in Seoul. Sanctions against the North were a central topic.

Silence hangs over the trial in Pyongyang of the two American women accused of “hostile acts” for entering North Korea “illegally” while reporting along China’s Tumen River border with the North in March.

Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency has not even confirmed if the two, Lisa Ling and Euna Lee of Current TV, are actually on trial, after having said the trial would begin Thursday afternoon before one of the country’s “highest courts.” US officials at the State Department say they have heard nothing, but note that a staffer from the Swedish Embassy, representing US interests in North Korea in the absence of relations between Washington and Pyongyang, was told he could not attend.

Speculation is mounting, however, that eventually Al Gore, the former vice president who is chairman of Current TV, the San Francisco-based Internet network, might go there to negotiate their release.

Mr. Gore himself has said nothing about this possibility, and the State Department refuses to discuss what a spokesman called “a very, very sensitive issue.” The sense is that Gore could give North Korea the kind of publicity it wants to press for US recognition as a nuclear power in the wake of its underground test of May 25. It could then to move into two-way dialogue with the US that would exclude South Korea and other parties to the six-party talks, to which it has vowed “never” to return.

Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, fueled the speculation about a Gore mission in a story saying that the State Department had “not denied” the idea that Gore might aid in winning the women’s release.

The State Department has been equally silent on whether Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, leading a mission to South Korea, China, and Japan, might also have raised the topic of what to do about the women. An official said only that Mr. Steinberg had had “very productive” talks Friday in Beijing after having seen South Korea’s President Lee Myung Bak in Seoul.

Steinberg, in Seoul, gave assurances against rewarding North Korea’s behavior with more aid. He and President Lee talked about the need for strengthening sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council to curb the North’s nuclear ambitions. The Security Council has not yet acted in response to North Korea’s latest nuclear test but did impose sanctions after the North’s first nuclear test on Oct. 9, 2006.

There was no word on whether Steinberg pressed China to support new sanctions. Nor was there any clue as to whether US officials, while in Beijing, had met with members of the foreign community who do business with North Korea to see if they might help win freedom for the two women.

Nicholas Bonner, a British travel agent and filmmaker in Beijing, has said that his organization was doing what it could – but did not say what.

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