Two American journalists in detention in North Korea face trial there this week. Some North Korea watchers suggest that if Pyongyang decides to release the women that might be a sign North Korea may be ready to talk about its nuclear program.
This text below is a phonetic transcript of a radio story broadcast by PRI's THE WORLD. It has been created on deadline by a contractor for PRI. The transcript is included here to facilitate internet searches for audio content. Please report any transcribing errors to email@example.com. This transcript may not be in its final form, and it may be updated. Please be aware that the authoritative record of material distributed by PRI's THE WORLD is the program audio.
MARCO WERMAN: There's plenty going on right now in the stand out between North Korea and the United States. The DPRK as it's officially known recently tested a nuclear device for the second time. It's reported to be preparing for yet another launch of a long-range rocket. Kim Jong-il is said to have chosen one of his sons to continue the family's rule over North Korea and two American women are facing trial this week in the North Korean capital. They were detained last March near the border with China. The World's Matthew Bell has more on their situation.
MATTHEW BELL: Laura Ling and Euna Lee were detained while reporting about the plight of North Korean refugees along the border with China. That's something the governments of both countries would rather not call attention to, says Chuck Downs.
CHUCK DOWNS: It's not the fault of people who are trying to do good when people who are doing evil happen to get the upper hand.
BELL: Downs it the Executive Director for the Washington based group Human Rights in North Korea. He says Ling and Lee were trying to shed light on a politically embarrassing story.
DOWNS: There have been many people who have been rescuing North Koreans as they come across the border trying to get them to South Korea. They are captured by Chinese agents at some point. They are captured by North Korean agents at different points. Their Rolodexes are stolen. The channels of getting people out are sometimes exposed. It's an ongoing problem between those who are trying to help some of the most severely disadvantaged people on the face of the earth.
BELL: The families of the two American journalists have stayed mostly quiet since their loved ones were imprisoned by North Korea nearly three months ago, but they've started speaking out ahead of the trial scheduled for Thursday, June 4th. Laura Ling's older sister, Lisa, is a TV journalist herself. Yesterday, she appeared with relatives on NBC's Today Show. She was asked about conflicting reports that the two women crossed into North Korea. Ling said she didn't know about the circumstances of their detention but she did know one thing.
LISA LING: When they left the United States, there was no intention of crossing the border into North Korea, and if any point they may have, we, the families, apologize profusely on their behalf.
BELL: Ling said the family has received at least one letter from her sister and that she got a late night phone call recently. Laura said she's being treated fairly, Ling said, and that she's getting three meals a day. Those are good signs, according to former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, Donald Gregg. Despite its recent provocative acts, Gregg says the North has an opportunity to show that it's still open to seeking a normal relationship with the outside world by treating these women well.
DONALD GREGG: I guess on the other hand, they are treated severely and subjected to some overblown charges of espionage. I think that will be a signal that North Korea has in essence burned its bridges in terms of its relationship with the outside world. So I have strongly suggested to the contacts that I have with North Korea in New York that the release these women, and that they use this as sending a positive signal to the outside world saying, "Yes, we still are interested in relations. Yes, we still are interested in dialogue."
BELL: The North Korean government might be using the trial of Ling and Lee to send a message of warning to would-be reporters or activists, but Sung-Yoon Lee of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University says the regime is not tone deaf.
SUNG-YOON LEE: North Korea even as the world's most oppressive Totalitarian system actually does care about PR, about its image in the world.
BELL: And because Laura Ling and Euna Lee are private citizens, Professor Lee says they hold very little propaganda value.
LEE: Even if the two detainees were to be found guilty, I think it would be in the best interest of the North Korean regime to release them as a show of clemency. It might even make Kim Jong-il come across as statesmanlike.
BELL: U.S. officials aren't playing up the case of Ling and Lee other than to say that securing their release is a high priority for both the President and the Secretary of State. For the World, I'm Matthew Bell.
WERMAN: You can hear more about the tensions between the United States and North Korea on Matthew's weekly podcast. Just look for American Influence at theworld.org/podcast.