North Korea Silent on Fate of Two U.S. Journalists

SEOUL (AFP) -- North Korea stayed silent Friday on the fate of two U.S. women journalists who went on trial the previous day on charges that could send them to a labor camp for years.

Since a terse announcement Thursday that the hearing would start at 3:00 pm (0600 GMT) that day, the communist state's official media has carried no update on proceedings against Laura Ling and Euna Lee.

The case has further raised tensions with Washington following the North's nuclear test last week and its reported plans for another long-range rocket launch.

The TV reporters were detained by North Korean border guards on March 17 while researching a story about refugees fleeing the North.

Pyongyang has previously said they would face trial for "hostile acts" and illegally entering the country. South Korean analysts say "hostile acts" are punishable by a minimum five years' detention and hard labor.

Analysts have said the pair may become pawns in efforts to open direct negotiations with the United States.

"North Korea appears to be using the case as a bargaining chip," said Kim Yong-Hyun, professor of North Korea studies at Seoul's Dongguk University.

Kim told AFP he believed the court had already handed down jail sentences but that no announcement would be forthcoming until contact had been made with Washington.

The North has long sought direct talks in preference to the stalled six-party negotiations on nuclear disarmament of which Washington is a part.

Pyongyang has in the past freed captured Americans but only after personal interventions. The U.S. State Department did not rule out the possibility that former vice president Al Gore might undertake such a mission.

Gore is chairman of the California station Current TV, which employs the two journalists, both aged in their thirties.

"It's a very, very sensitive issue, I'm not going to go into it," department spokesman Ian Kelly told a daily briefing when asked if it would make sense to send Gore.

The State Department said it understood that no observers would be allowed to attend the trial.

Supporters of the pair and a media freedom group have called for leniency, saying that even if Ling and Lee had crossed the North Korean border, they did so inadvertently.

Friends, family and colleagues held candlelight vigils in Washington and seven other U.S. cities Wednesday evening.

The families of the pair have appealed for clemency and urged the two governments not to link the case to the nuclear stand-off.

Sweden's envoy in Pyongyang, who represents U.S. interests in the absence of diplomatic ties, has been allowed three visits to the women. The North on Tuesday last week allowed them to phone their families in the U.S.

"We had not heard their voices in over two and a half months," said Ling's sister Lisa. "They are very scared -- they're very, very scared."

Both detainees are married and Lee has a four-year-old daughter.

The North has been showing an increasingly defiant face to the world since it fired a long-range rocket on April 5 despite international appeals to refrain.

After the United Nations Security Council punished the launch by tightening sanctions, the North responded on May 25 with its second nuclear test.

It has also renounced the armistice on the Korean peninsula and is said to be preparing to test medium-range missiles and a long-range Taepodong-2.

The North is also holding a South Korean employee of the Kaesong joint industrial estate just north of the border.

He has been detained since March 30 for allegedly criticizing Pyongyang's political system and encouraging a woman worker to defect.

The North has accepted the South's proposal for working-level talks next week to settle disagreements over Kaesong's operations, the unification ministry said.

But analysts said this did not indicate any desire to improve ties with Seoul.

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