SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea said on Thursday it would put two U.S. journalists it arrested in March on trial on June 4, ratcheting up tension with Washington after a rocket launch and a threat to conduct a nuclear test.
Analysts said the reclusive North sees the two reporters as bargaining chips to try to win concessions out of the government of U.S. President Barack Obama, which is pressing Pyongyang to return to stalled nuclear disarmament talks.
Euna Lee and Laura Ling, of U.S. media outlet Current TV, were arrested along the North Korea-China border. They were accused of illegally entering North Korea with “hostile” intent and Pyongyang has said they face criminal charges.
“The Central Court of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) decided to try the American journalists on June 4 according to the indictment of the competent organ,” the official KCNA news agency said in a one-sentence dispatch.
Washington has said it was in touch with the North through various channels to secure the release of the journalists, with details of their pre-dawn arrest still murky.
The State Department had no comment on the trial date report.
North Korea has pulled out of talks with five regional powers aimed at ending its nuclear ambitions and said it is useless to talk to the Obama government, which it accuses of continuing a hostile policy to topple Pyongyang’s leaders.
Analysts said the destitute North faces a sharp rebuke from the United States if it keeps the pair in detention but it may be willing to risk further isolation if it feels it can gain bargaining leverage.
“The North now has higher expectation of the U.S. showing some sort of response, such as a visit of a high-level envoy to Pyongyang,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a Dongguk University professor of North Korea studies.
The North, which conducted its first and only nuclear test in October 2006, rattled the region with an April 5 rocket launch condemned as a disguised missile test, prompting tighter U.N. sanctions.
An angry Pyongyang responded by dropping out of the nuclear talks, saying it would restart its plant that makes bomb-grade plutonium and threatening a fresh nuclear test unless the U.N. Security Council apologized.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said earlier this week: “I think that North Korea has effectively isolated itself internationally, even greater than was the case before, by some of this rhetoric.”
Separately North Korean ally Iran this week released U.S.-born journalist, Roxana Saberi, after an Iranian appeal court cut her jail sentence for spying in another case seen as a test for Obama’s team.
Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun, Jack Kim and Jonathan Thatcher, editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Dean Yates