North Korea says it will put two detained American journalists on trial in three weeks. The two young women were captured near the Chinese-North Korean border and have been in Pyongyang's custody for more than a month, with almost no contact to the outside world. Some analysts see them as pawns in a much broader political game.
In a terse, one-sentence report on its main official news agency, North Korea notified the world, Thursday, it will put Euna Lee and Laura Ling on trial on June 4.
North Korean soldiers arrested the two Americans in March, as they were gathering video footage in the area of North Korea's Chinese border. The two are employed with San Francisco-based "Current TV," founded in part by former Vice President Al Gore. They planned a documentary about the hardships faced by North Korean refugees, especially women.
Pyongyang says an internal investigation has "confirmed crimes" allegedly committed by the two women, which include illegal entry as well as what the North describes as "hostile acts" against the country. There are various estimates of a possible sentence if they are convicted, ranging as high as ten years in a prison or labor camp.
Virtually every scholar here in Seoul views the detention of the two women in the context of how North Korea may be planning to use them to achieve diplomatic aims with the United States. Yun Duk-min, a researcher at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, says Pyongyang is clearly taking advantage of the situation.
He says the U.S. journalists are basically hostages. He points out that North Korea launched a long-range rocket last month and has since warned it may conduct a second nuclear weapons. He says that indicting the journalists is just another move aimed at Washington.
North Korea has pulled out of multinational talks aimed at getting rid of its nuclear weapons arsenal and refuses to engage in any dialogue whatsover with South Korea. The North ejected nuclear inspectors, last month, and says it plans to reprocess nuclear fuel into weapons material.
Yun Dae-gyu, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, suggests the charges against the two women are a thin cloak for a deeper agenda.
He describes this episode as a trial process in name only, emphasizing it is absolutely a matter of politics. He says North Korea is only likely to release the two journalists after it is completely certain how the United States will respond.
Many experts believe Pyongyang wants direct, one-on-one talks with the United States - preferably in the form of a high-level envoy visit to North Korea. In that context, the North may use the two women as bargaining chips to extract the maximum possible material and diplomatic concessions from Washington.