North Korean Plan to Try U.S. Journalists Seen As Politically Motivated

By Patrick Goodenough | April 24, 2009 | 4:49 AM EDT

South Korean protesters call for the release of detained American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee during a rally against North Korea in Seoul on Thursday, April 2, 2009. (AP Photo)

( – Days after an Iranian security court jailed an American-Iranian journalist for spying for the U.S., North Korea said Friday it will put two detained American journalists on trial, amid concerns that the two regimes are using the women as pawns in their disputes with the U.S.
North Korea and Iran are both embroiled in disagreements with the West over nuclear activities, along with differences over human rights, long-range missile development and other destabilizing behavior in their respective regions.
Neither has formal relations with the U.S., and both are seeking diplomatic and other concessions from an administration that has expressed a willingness to engage.
North Korea’s state-run news agency KCNA did not specify what charges Euna Lee and Laura Ling would face, announcing only that they would be formally brought to trial “based on their documented crimes.” Pyongyang earlier accused them of illegal entry and “hostile acts” against the Stalinist state, a crime South Korean experts say carries a penalty of up to 10 years in labor camps.
The two, who work for San Francisco-based Current TV, were apprehended by North Korean soldiers while filming along the river that forms the frontier between North Korea and China on March 17 – which side of the border remains unclear.
They were in the area to film about the plight of North Koreans who have fled into China, according to a South Korean missionary organization working with refugees there.
Lee and Ling were arrested at a time of heightened tensions over preparations for a long-range missile launch.
U.S.-led criticism at the U.N. of the April 5 launch prompted North Korea to announce it would end all cooperation with the international community over its nuclear programs, exacerbating existing tension with the U.S. which is pressing for tougher sanctions.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, April 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The announcement about the two Americans going on trial may be another bid to get Washington’s attention; it came shortly after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her first congressional testimony since taking the position, said virtually nothing about North Korea.
Clinton’s opening remarks to the House Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday touched on Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, the Middle East, China, Russia, India, Japan, Europe, Africa, Latin America and NATO – but did not mention North Korea.
Later, in reply to questioning, she said the U.S. was ready to resume multiparty nuclear negotiations but would “not give in to the kind of back-and-forth, the unpredictable behavior, of the North Korean regime.”
Kim Yong-hyun, a professor in North Korean studies at South Korea’s Dongguk University, told the Yonhap news agency Friday the announcement of the trial could constitute an urging by Pyongyang for the U.S. “to quickly start dialogue.”
‘Diplomatic blackmail’
Dealings between the U.S. and Iran, meanwhile, have long been strained over Tehran’s nuclear activities and Western suspicions that an ostensibly civilian program is a cover for a military one.
Iran, too, is the target of U.N. sanctions for persisting with uranium enrichment, and Clinton on Wednesday told the House committee the administration was both pursuing a diplomatic path and laying the groundwork for tougher sanctions if dialogue fails.
An Iranian “revolutionary court” in a behind-closed-doors trial last week convicted Roxana Saberi of espionage and sentenced her to eight years’ imprisonment.
The U.S. government had earlier called the charges baseless and demanded her release, with State Department spokesman Robert Wood saying that “responding in a positive way to the Saberi case would be helpful in terms of winning goodwill.”

This undated photo provided by the National Press Photographers Association shows U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi, who has been charged with espionage in Iran. (AP Photo/NPPA)

With Saberi planning to appeal, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad let it be known Sunday that he has instructed prosecutors to ensure a fair hearing, feeding speculation that he is positioning himself to use the issue for political leverage.
The continuing detention of five Iranians captured by U.S. forces in Iraq in early 2007 is one issue that Tehran wants to see resolved. The five caught in Irbil were suspected of being members of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, involved in supporting the anti-coalition insurgency. The Iranian government, which says they are diplomats, earlier this year suggested their release would be a sign of the “change” promised by the Obama administration.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi early this week denied that Saberi was being used as a bargaining chip to try to win the release of Iranians “abducted” in Iraq.
He said there was no connection between the two cases, and reiterated Iran’s demand that the “diplomats” be released.
The International Press Institute said this week Iran and North Korea were holding Saberi, Lee and Ling as “apparent political hostages” in their disputes with the U.S.
“It is beyond contempt that these journalists are being held hostage to the fortunes of political brinkmanship by countries who share an outdated belief that this is the best way to conduct negotiations on difficult international subjects,” said the Vienna-based press freedom body’s director, David Dadge.
Another press freedom watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, also voiced concern that North Korea may use Ling and Lee “for diplomatic blackmail.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow