Why now? All I can do is guess, but it’s probably a combination of diplomatic convenience and the likelihood that they finally gave their interrogators what they wanted.
In announcing the trial date, the North’s state-run news agency, KCNA, gave no further details, such as what charges they faced. But Pyongyang had earlier said that it found evidence of illegal entry and unspecified hostile acts.
Under North Korea’s criminal code, a person convicted of hostile acts against the state can face at least five years in labor camps. Illegal entry carries a sentence of up to three years in a labor camp. [N.Y. Times]
You know, I just can’t explain why the North Koreans would be so mean to peaceful journalists who work for a nice guy like Al Gore, or why Barack Obama’s “expression of concern” didn’t bring about their immediate release. I read somewhere that it was George Bush that made the North Koreans the way they were. Why do they hate us? Is it possible that they’re just assholes?
It’s not a theory completely lacking in support, of course, and we can add one more rumor to those already in circulation that the North Koreans’ arrest of Ling and Lee was more than happenstance:
A guide who led two American journalists to the China-North Korea border may have tipped off North Korean security authorities to their arrival, multiple Chinese and government sources have said. The pair are currently detained in North Korea. [Reuters Press Digest, citing the Korea Economic Daily]
If North Korea “kidnapped” Ling and Lee or extended their detention to achieve a political or diplomatic purpose, legally speaking, it would be an act of international terrorism.
The Wall Street Journal points out that North Korea’s incommunicado detention of Ling and Lee violates international law, although the significance of that point to the North Koreans — or the U.S. State Department — isn’t apparent:
Under international criminal law, defendants have the right to access diplomatic officers of their own state. But American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, detained for nearly two months, haven’t been allowed contact with Western officials since March 30. [Wall Street Journal, Evan Ramstad]
The article notes that this would be the first time North Korea has actually put American citizens on “trial,” or what passes for one in North Korea.
Mats Foyer, the Swedish ambassador in Pyongyang, met with Ms. Lee and Ms. Ling separately on March 30. He declined to comment on the situation late last week, and referred questions to the State Department. An official there said Mr. Foyer has “repeatedly requested additional visits,” but none have been allowed.
U.S. officials have said less about Ms. Lee and Ms. Ling than they have about an American reporter, Roxana Saberi, who was recently convicted of espionage in Iran. The strategy is partly a gamble that not provoking the North Koreans may lead to a speedy resolution, analysts say, but it’s also a sign of the increased uncertainty in dealing with Pyongyang.
U.S. officials have said little about the journalists’ situation, but have indicated they aren’t making progress with Pyongyang. A person not in government who is familiar with the situation said that North Korea isn’t talking to the U.S. at all.
As Jodi had noticed before, newspapers — even those that are usually content to ignore North Korea’s mass atrocities against its own people — are starting to pay more attention to North Korea’s treatment of two American journalists, though that treatment is unquestionably more gentle than that experienced by an estimated 200,000 North Korean concentration camp inmates. They aren’t seeing the worth of the State Department’s “quiet diplomacy,” either:
The U.S. ought to exploit the same intense interest North Korea has for more dialogue to secure release of two reporters for a California TV station being held on unspecified criminal charges. Laura Ling and Euna Lee were covering North Korean immigrants along the Chinese border, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Pyongyang claims they entered North Korea illegally. [Seattle Times]
The ill-informed editors of the Times then proceed to call for direct talks with North Korea, apparently without realizing that North Korea refuses to talk to us.
The lessons of this episode suggest that U.S. passports need a new disclaimer: “Warning: your government will not protect you, and its diplomats look on you with contempt.”