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North Korea announced that two U.S. journalists were about to go on trial — then came the mysterious silence.
The day passed Friday with no updates of the criminal proceedings that were supposed to begin Thursday for TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee. Instead, the secretive nation's news agency filed stories about Sweden's king, American "warmongers" and Syrian Embassy workers helping North Korean farmers weed bean fields.
The news blackout could mean the journalists — arrested three months ago on the China-North Korean border — were being used as bargaining chips. The North might be dragging out their trial as the communist leadership waits to see what kind of sanctions Washington and the U.N. will use to punish the nation for its latest nuclear blast and barrage of missile tests last week.
Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean expert at Dongguk University in Seoul, said Pyongyang will likely free the reporters and treat their release as a goodwill gesture that should be reciprocated with a special U.S. envoy visiting the isolated state.
"It shows how the North makes political judgments, which have nothing to do with laws," Koh said.
The journalists — working for former Vice President Al Gore's California-based Current TV — were arrested March 17 as they were reporting about the trafficking of women. It's unclear if they strayed into the North or were grabbed by aggressive border guards who crossed into China.
Seized U.S. journalists become 'hostages' in N. Korea crisis
BEIJING — When American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee fell into the hands of North Korean border guards two weeks ago, vanishing into the maw of the most isolated nation on Earth, their fate drew concern.
Now the complications are growing.
North Korea appears days — maybe hours — away from test-firing a missile carrying what it asserts is a satellite. Reports say that North Korea is fueling the multi-stage ballistic missile at a launch site in its northeast.
In London on Thursday, President Barack Obama met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, and the two called for "stern, unified action" if the North goes ahead with its launch, the first since 2006, the same year it tested a nuclear device.
Ling and Lee, journalists for former Vice President Al Gore's media venture Current TV, based in San Francisco, have become pawns in a global chess match.
"The girls have become hostages, and a lot of things will depend on high politics," said Andrei N. Lankov, a North Korea specialist at Kookmin University in Seoul and one of the last people whom the two Asian-American journalists contacted before they traveled to North Korea's border with China to investigate the situation of refugees.