SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea will put on trial on Thursday two U.S. journalists it says illegally entered the country with “hostile intent” in a contentious case that comes as Pyongyang faces international anger for last week’s nuclear test.
“The Central Court of the DPRK (North Korea) will start a trial of American journalists Laura Ling and Seung-eun Lee from 3 p.m. Thursday (2 a.m. EDT) on the basis of the indictment already brought against them,” its KCNA news agency said.
Experts said a guilty verdict is certain and that the two, captured on North Korea’s border with China in March while working on a story, are likely to become bargaining chips in high-stake negotiations with the United States, which has long sought to end the North’s nuclear ambitions.
The journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee who was referred to by her Korean name in the KCNA dispatch, are with U.S. media outlet Current TV. Analysts said they believe the two are the first U.S. journalists the North has criminally charged and put on trial for illegally entering the reclusive state.
“North Korean law states that a person convicted of highly hostile acts can be subject to forced labor for a period of 10 years or more,” said Park Jeong-woo, a law professor at the South’s Kookmin University and an expert on the North’s legal system.
Little has been heard of the two since their arrest but they have been seen by Sweden’s ambassador to Pyongyang on behalf of Washington, which has no diplomatic ties with North Korea.
“When I first got here, I cried so much. Now, I cry less,” Ling was quoted as saying in a letter sent to her sister on May 15.
Human rights groups have said jails in impoverished North Korea are brutal, with torture common and prisoners often killed through malnutrition and abuse.
The families of the two women called for North Korea to quickly release Lee, who has a four-year-old daughter, and Ling, who was being treated for an ulcer before her departure.
“We aren’t certain of the details of what happened on March 17, but we can say with absolute certainty that when the girls left U.S. soil, they never intended to set foot onto North Korean territory,” they said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the charges “baseless” and urged their immediate release.
North Korea has also held a South Korean worker in custody for about three months at a joint factory park located close to the heavily fortified border dividing the peninsula on suspicion of insulting Pyongyang’s leaders.
The last high profile case of a U.S. citizen arrested for crossing into the North came in 1996. Evan Hunziker was held for three months on charges of spying.
Bill Richardson, a former official in the Bill Clinton administration and now governor of New Mexico, went to the North to secure his release and help settle a $5,000 “hotel bill” imposed by the North to cover the cost of Hunziker’s detention.
Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun and Jack Kim; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Dean Yates