SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea was silent Friday about the trial of two American journalists facing the secretive communist nation's highest court on allegations that they crossed into the country illegally and engaged in "hostile acts."
The case of TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee threatened to raise tensions with the U.S., which already have been running high since the North tested another nuclear device last week and fired a series of missiles.
There were fears the women might become political pawns as the U.N. debates possible sanctions for Pyongyang in response to the test.
No details of the trial have been publicly released since the North's official news agency filed a brief dispatch Thursday saying the proceedings would be held later that day. The story has been followed by only a few other reports, including one accusing the U.S. of warmongering and another about Syrian Embassy workers helping the North's farmers weed a bean field.
Washington had no independent confirmation that the trial had begun, U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Thursday. The North has said no foreign observers would be allowed to watch the trial, he said. That includes Swedish officials who act as Washington's proxy in Pyongyang because North Korea and the U.S. do not have diplomatic ties.
The journalists, who worked for former Vice President Al Gore's California-based Current TV, were doing a story about the trafficking of women when they were arrested March 17 near the Chinese-North Korean border. It was unclear if they strayed into the North or were grabbed by border guards who encroached on Chinese territory.
Pyongyang has yet to publicly announce the exact charges against the women, but South Korean legal experts have said a conviction for "hostility" or espionage could mean five to 10 years in a labor camp.
Choi Eun-suk, a professor on North Korean legal affairs at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in South Korea, said rulings by Pyongyang's high court are final and an appeal won't be allowed. But he said if post-trial negotiations go well, the journalists may be released eventually like other convicted foreigners before them.
One case involved an American, Evan C. Hunziker, who entered the North in 1996 by swimming across the Yalu River, which marks the border with China. Hunziker, who apparently made the swim on a drunken dare, was accused of spying and detained for three months.
Hunziker, then 26, was eventually freed after negotiations involving a special U.S. envoy. The North Koreans wanted to slap Hunziker with a $100,000 criminal fine but eventually agreed on a $5,000 payment to settle a bill for a hotel where he was detained.
One of the most detailed accounts of a North Korean legal proceeding involving a foreigner came from Ali Lameda, a poet and member of Venezuela's Communist Party. In 1967, he was accused of spying, sabotage and infiltration — allegations he denied — while working as a Spanish translator for the North's government.
Lameda wrote in a report to human rights group Amnesty International that his legal fate was determined by a high court judge in a tribunal of the Ministry of Internal Security.
No evidence, formal charges or specific allegations were presented during the one-day proceeding, he said. Instead, court officials repeatedly demanded that Lameda confess his guilt.
Lameda said a defense lawyer was assigned to him, but he only got to spend about a half hour with the attorney. He said that in court, the defense attorney gave a long speech praising the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung before suggesting his client be sentenced to 20 years in a labor camp.
The court agreed, but Lameda said he was released after serving six years.
North Korea also has custody of a South Korean detained in late March in the Koreas' joint industrial complex in the northern border town of Kaesong. He was accused of slandering the communist regime.
South Korean officials have not been granted access to the man and his whereabouts Friday were unclear, the Unification Ministry said.
North Korean officials told employer Hyundai Asan Corp. Yu Song-jin, a maintenance man at a Kaesong dormitory, was "doing fine" but did not say where he was being held, company official Park Sung-wook said Friday.