SEOUL, South Korea – Two American journalists detained in North Korea could land in a notorious labor camp for years if convicted on charges of illegal entry and "hostile acts." But the regime may be more interested in using the reporters as leverage in talks with the U.S.
They could provide Pyongyang with an edge in any negotiations with Washington following its planned launch of a rocket some time in the coming week, which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has warned would be seen as a "provocative act" with serious consequences.
Euna Lee and Laura Ling, journalists working for former Vice President Al Gore's San Francisco-based Current TV media venture, were detained by North Korean border guards March 17 while on a reporting trip to China.
North Korea's Korean Central News Agency said a preliminary investigation provided enough proof to put the two on trial.
"The illegal entry of U.S. reporters into the DPRK and their suspected hostile acts have been confirmed by evidence and their statements," Tuesday's report said, referring to the country by the initials of its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said U.S. officials have seen reports that the North intends to put the reporters on trial but he could not confirm the information.
He said officials are "working this matter diplomatically," adding the U.S. "would like to see our citizens released."
The KCNA report did not elaborate on what "hostile acts" the journalists allegedly committed, and legal expert Moon Dae-hong said it's not clear from the statement what charges the Americans would face.
Conviction for illegal entry carries up to three years in prison in North Korea, according to the Information Center on North Korea, an agency affiliated with Seoul's Unification Ministry. The more serious crimes of espionage or "hostility toward North Korean people" are punishable by five to 10 years in one of North Korea's notorious prison camps — or more than 10 years in some cases.
"Under North Korean criminal law, most crimes carry heavy punishment," said Moon, a senior prosecutor who is an adviser to the Unification Ministry.
Their detentions come at a time of mounting tensions in the region, with North Korea preparing to launch a rocket over the objections of its neighbors.
Pyongyang has declared it will send a communications satellite into space sometime from Saturday to the following Wednesday, but the U.S. and other nations suspect the launch will be a test of the country's outlaw long-range missile technology.
The U.S., South Korea and Japan have warned Pyongyang it risks sanctions by carrying out a launch, because of a 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution banning the North from any ballistic activity.
North Korea's announcement of the American reporters' detention was unusual for Pyongyang, which in the past has kept quiet about any foreigners in its custody.
Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University, said Pyongyang's statement indicates the regime has no intention of releasing the journalists soon.
Having two Americans in hand is like having a "piece of rice cake rolling in" for free, he said. They provide Pyongyang with convenient leverage for any negotiations with Washington that might follow their rocket launch.
"They're going to make maximum use of this for multiple purposes," Koh said, by linking the reporters' release to the rocket launch and their long-standing push for direct talks with the U.S.
"Rather than a trial by a criminal code, it will be a political trial that reflects relations between the North and the U.S.," he said.
Washington and Pyongyang have not had diplomatic relations in years, but North Korea is eager to establish direct relations with President Barack Obama's new administration, analysts said.
Peter M. Beck, a professor of Korean studies at American University in Washington, said he expected Obama to dispatch a high-level diplomat to Pyongyang to negotiate for the release of the journalists after the rocket launch.
"This creates an opportunity to at least have an excuse for the two sides to sit down together for talks," he said Sunday.
Past detentions of Americans have required diplomatic intervention. In 1996, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, then a congressman, went to North Korea to help secure the release of an American detained for three months on spying charges. In 1994, he helped arrange the freedom of a U.S. soldier whose helicopter strayed into North Korea.