SEOUL, South Korea – Two U.S. journalists accused by North Korea of crossing into the country illegally from China and committing "hostile acts" will be tried on criminal charges, the isolated nation announced Friday.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who work for San Francisco-based Current TV, a media venture founded by former Vice President Al Gore, were arrested March 17 near the North Korean border while reporting on refugees living in China.
North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency confirmed their detention late last month, saying indictments were being prepared as an investigation into suspected illegal entry and unspecified "hostile acts" continued.
A dispatch Friday said the investigation had concluded, and the journalists would stand trial "on the basis of the confirmed crimes." It did not say exactly what charges they face or when the trial would take place.
The Americans' prolonged detention and pending trial come amid mounting diplomatic tensions between Pyongyang and the international community, including the U.S., over its rogue nuclear program.
Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, called the Americans another "negotiating chip" for Pyongyang as it embarks on negotiations with Washington and its allies over the nuclear impasse.
Putting them on trial "means that they want to increase their pressure on the U.S., much in line with their recent tactics," he said Friday.
North Korea, which carried out a nuclear test in 2006 and is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium to build half a dozen bombs, agreed in February 2007 to dismantle its atomic program in exchange for much-needed aid and other concessions.
That process has been stalled since last July over a dispute with Washington over how to verify its past atomic activities.
In the meantime, North Korea defied international calls to cancel a rocket launch seen by some as a test of technology for sending a long-range missile as far as Alaska, and fired off the rocket on April 5.
The U.N. Security Council condemned the launch as a violation of a 2006 resolution barring the North from ballistic missile-related activity.
North Korea responded by pulling out of the six-nation negotiations on nuclear disarmament and within days booted out international monitors.
Communist North Korea is one of the world's most isolated nations, and details about the circumstances of the two Americans' capture remain scant more than a month after they disappeared along the Tumen River dividing China and northeastern North Korea.
A South Korean who helped organize their reporting trip, the Rev. Chun Ki-won of Durihana Mission, said the women traveled to the border region to interview women and children who had fled impoverished North Korea and were trying to build new lives in China.
He said he warned them repeatedly to stay away from the long and often unmarked border. Armed North Korean guards are known to threaten journalists who venture to the region to get a glimpse into the reclusive nation.
A cameraman, Mitch Koss, and the group's guide apparently eluded the guards.
Under North Korea's criminal code, conviction for illegal entry could mean up to three years in a labor camp.
Espionage or "hostility toward North Koreans" — possible crimes that could be considered "hostile acts" — could mean five to 10 years in prison, South Korean legal expert Moon Dae-hong said.
Past detentions of Americans have required diplomatic intervention. In 1994, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, then a congressman, went to Pyongyang to secure the release of a soldier captured after his helicopter strayed into North Korea. He went back in 1996 to help free an American held for three months on spying charges after going for a swim in the Yalu, another river dividing North Korea and China.
Washington, which does not have diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, has relied so far on the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang to negotiate on its behalf. A Swedish envoy has met with both journalists, U.S. officials said.
State Department spokesman Fred Lash said late Thursday he had not seen the North Korean report and had no comment. Current TV officials did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment.
Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University, described the Americans' capture as a bonanza for the North Koreans, who he said would stage a "political trial" reflective of the tense relations between Washington and Pyongyang.
"Our greatest fear is that they are being used as pawns in the broader game being played out on the Korean peninsula," said Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.