North Korea may no longer be branded by the United States as part of a global "axis of evil," but the recent arrest of two American journalists there is throwing a serious wrench in the Obama administration's goal to make Pyongyang a nuclear non-proliferating power. Today, North Korea announced that two female U.S. reporters, arrested March 17, will stand trial for acts against the state. If convicted, the women, who have been held in Pyongyang since their arrest, could land in jail for at least five years. The announcement closely follows last week's sentencing of another U.S. journalist to eight years in prison for spying in Iran, another former "axis of evil" nation.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were working for San Francisco based Current TV at the time of their arrest, will be put on trial to face criminal charges for entering North Korea with "hostile intent." Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency said Friday that the North decided to indict the women reporters "based on criminal data confirmed." The pair were detained by North Korean guards last month after allegedly straying across the border, an unmarked halfway point on the Tumen River dividing China and northeastern North Korea. The U.S State Department, which already has its hands full trying to secure the release of 31-year-old Iranian American journalist Roxana Saberi, has been especially tight-lipped about the North Korean case, saying only "numerous channels are being used to hasten their release." (See pictures of the rise of Kim Jong Il.)
Complicating negotiations to let them go, of course, is the North's rocket launch on April 5 and the international censure it received. Infuriated by the United Nations' condemnation of the launch, which flew over Japan and fell into the Pacific Ocean, Pyongyang kicked out international monitors from its nuclear facilities on April 14, and has said since then that it would restart its nuclear program and quit the on-again off-again so-called six-party disarmament talks.
Now, many expect Pyongyang to use the jailed reporters as pawns in the stalemate, increasing pressure on the Obama administration to make North Korea a foreign policy priority earlier than planned. That means the White House could find itself revisiting topics from nuclear weapons to restarting food aid, suspended last March, sooner than it had planned. "North Korea is going to make them the most valuable bargaining chip as it can," says Kim Taewoo a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute For Defense Analysis. He expects their trial, the start date of which has yet to be announced, to be a rubber stamp affair. "It will just be a formality."
The reporting duo, who were reported to have been filming a story about North Korean refugees living in China, has been in custody for about one month in a guesthouse in Pyongyang. The women reportedly have had contact with officials from the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which articulates American interests in North Korea since the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.