SEOUL, South Korea – Two U.S. journalists arrested nearly two months ago near North Korea's border with China on accusations of illegal entry and "hostile acts" will be tried by Pyongyang in early June, state media said Thursday.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's San Francisco-based Current TV media venture, were detained March 17 while reporting on North Korean refugees living across the border in China.
A brief dispatch by Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency did not say what charges they will face June 4 and provided few details. But state media previously said they stand accused of illegal entry and unspecified "hostile" acts — charges that could carry up to 10 years in prison.
The detention of the two Americans comes at a time of mounting tensions between Pyongyang and Washington, and there are concerns the North could use the women as bargaining chips as it seeks to position itself for talks with the Obama administration about its weapons programs.
The women will be tried in North Korea's Central Court — the country's top court — the statement said, in a sign of the seriousness of the case and an indication the regime will not allow any appeal of the verdict.
The Central Court normally deals with appeals but has the right to hear some "special" cases first, and those verdicts can not be appealed, said Seoul lawyer Han Myung-sub, an expert on North Korean law.
The U.S. does not have diplomatic ties with the North and has relied on the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang to negotiate on its behalf.
A Swedish envoy met with each journalist on March 30, but the North since has refused access to them, U.S. officials said.
"I'm not aware of any kind of reasons that have been given to us as to why they're denying the consular access, which, of course, is contrary to the Vienna Convention," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters Monday.
North Korea, which conducted a nuclear test and test-fired a long-range missile in 2006, had agreed as part of a 2007 pact signed with five other nations to begin dismantling its atomic program in exchange for fuel aid and other concessions.
That process came to a halt last year amid a dispute with Washington, and talks in December in Beijing failed to resolve the matter.
North Korea's move to launch a rocket early last month further heightened tensions. Pyongyang claims it put a satellite into orbit, but the U.S. and other nations believe it was a long-range missile test banned under a U.N. resolution adopted after the 2006 atomic test.
The U.N. Security Council's condemnation of the April 5 launch angered North Korea, which quit the international nuclear talks, expelled inspectors and threatened to conduct nuclear and long-range missile tests.
The regime also said it has began reprocessing spent nuclear fuel roads — a move aimed at harvesting weapons-grade plutonium used to make atomic bombs.
Washington has expressed its willingness to hold talks with the North in order to get the nuclear negotiations back on track. But the North dismissed talks with the U.S. as useless, accusing President Barack Obama's government of maintaining what it called a "hostile policy" toward the nation.
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 draw five to 10 years in prison, South Korean legal experts say.
The announcement of the June trial date comes on the heels of the release in Iran this week of an American journalist originally sentenced to eight years for spying. Roxana Saberi's sentence was reduced to a two-year suspended term. She was freed Monday after four months in jail and international calls for the release of all three U.S. journalists.
Han, the lawyer, said the North was likely to hand down heavy sentences for Ling and Lee so they can hold onto the reporters and use them as a negotiating card.
"There is no reason for them to discard the card," he said, adding that chances are slim they will be freed on suspended sentences as in Saberi's case. But he speculated that the court could eventually grant the women a pardon.
North Korea also has a South Korean citizen in its custody. The man, who worked at the two Koreas' joint industrial park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, was detained in late March for allegedly denouncing Pyongyang's political system and spurring North Korean employees to flee the communist country.