March 31, 2009 / 12:24 AM / 8 years ago

North Korea to put U.S. journalists on trial

5 Min Read

(For full coverage on the expected launch, click [nSP469853])

* North Korea to try U.S. journalists

* U.S. missile interceptors deployed in area

* Launch helps ballistic missile programme

By Jonathan Thatcher

SEOUL, March 31 (Reuters) - North Korea said on Tuesday it would put on trial two U.S. journalists arrested earlier this month on its border with China, accusing them of "hostile acts".

The planned trial adds to the mounting tension over North Korea's planned rocket launch in the next few days, which it says is to send a communications satellite into space but which the United States and others say is to test a long-range missile that could carry a warhead as far as U.S. territory.

The two women reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee from the U.S.-based media outlet Current TV, were arrested two weeks ago by the Tumen River, which runs along the east side of the border between North Korea and China.

"The illegal entry of U.S. reporters into the DPRK (North Korea) and their suspected hostile acts have been confirmed by evidence and their statements, according to the results of intermediary investigation conducted by a competent organ of the DPRK," North Korea's KCNA news agency said.

"The organ is carrying on its investigation and, at the same time, making a preparation for indicting them at a trial on the basis of the already confirmed suspicions."

It added that while the investigation is underway, the reporters would be allowed consular access and treated according to international laws.

"We have seen (the report) and are still in the process of working diplomatically ... to achieve a favourable outcome," U.S. State Department spokesman Fred Lash said, declining further comment.

The incident comes amid growing pressure on the reclusive North not to launch its Taepodong-2 rocket.

It has said the launch will be between April 4-8, just before the opening session of its newly elected Supreme People's Assembly, a rubber stamp body that should set out the authoritarian government's policies for the next five years.

The planned launch is certain to be a topic on the sidelines of the G20 summit later this week in London when U.S. President Barack Obama meets global leaders, including Chinese President Hu Jintao. China is the nearest the isolated North has to a major ally.

U.S. DEPLOYMENT

The United States deployed two missile-interceptor ships out of South Korea on Monday though it has said it had no plans to shoot down the rocket unless it threatens U.S. territory.

South Korea and Japan are also deploying missile-interceptor ships in the area.

All three have said that North Korea would be breaking U.N. sanctions by launching the rocket.

North Korea has said that if the United Nations does penalise it, it could restart a plant that makes arms-grade plutonium.

The prickly state already faces a range of U.N. sanctions for previous launches and its nuclear test in 2006, which added to concerns of potential instability in a region that accounts for one sixth of the world's economy.

Analysts say it may not be concerned about more sanctions from the launch, which it will see as giving it greater leverage in negotiations with the outside world which is trying to make it give up attempts to build a nuclear arsenal.

A successful launch -- the first attempt in 2006 failed -- would be a huge boost at home for leader Kim Jong-il and also to his impoverished country's weapons exports, one of its few major sources of income from abroad.

The timing, analysts say, is especially important for the 67-year-old Kim whose health is thought to be poor after a suspected stroke last year raised questions over his grip on power in a country which has fallen deeper into poverty under his rule.

A U.S. defence official said a successful launch would also mark a significant step forward for North Korea's ballistic missile programme.

"It would mean they can use multistage boosters to get a payload to a certain point. That's half-way to bringing a re-entry vehicle back into the atmosphere," said the defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. (Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and David Morgan in Washington; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)





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