North Korea to put U.S. journalists on trial

By Jon Herskovitz

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea said Thursday it would put two U.S. journalists it arrested in March on trial on June 4 and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she hoped for a quick resolution to the case.

Analysts have said the reclusive North sees the reporters as bargaining chips to try to win concessions out of the government of U.S. President Barack Obama, which is pressing Pyongyang to return to stalled nuclear disarmament talks.

Euna Lee and Laura Ling, of U.S. media outlet Current TV, were arrested along the North Korea-China border. They were accused of illegally entering North Korea with "hostile" intent and Pyongyang has said they face criminal charges.

"The Central Court of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) decided to try the American journalists on June 4 according to the indictment of the competent organ," the official KCNA news agency said in a one-sentence dispatch.

Speaking in Washington, Clinton told reporters she welcomed the quick trial date, saying "the fact that they are now going to have some process we believe is a signal that there can be, and I hope will be, a resolution as soon as possible."

She also repeated her view that the charges against the two are baseless and that they should be released .

North Korea has pulled out of talks with five regional powers aimed at ending its nuclear ambitions and said it is useless to talk to the Obama government, which it accuses of continuing a hostile policy to topple Pyongyang's leaders.

Analysts said the destitute North faces a sharp rebuke from the United States if it keeps the pair in detention but it may be willing to risk further isolation if it feels it can gain bargaining leverage.

"The North now has higher expectation of the U.S. showing some sort of response, such as a visit of a high-level envoy to Pyongyang," said Koh Yu-hwan, a Dongguk University professor of North Korea studies.

The North, which conducted its first and only nuclear test in October 2006, rattled the region with an April 5 rocket launch condemned as a disguised missile test, prompting tighter U.N. sanctions.

Pyongyang responded by dropping out of the nuclear talks, saying it would restart its plant that makes bomb-grade plutonium and threatening a fresh nuclear test unless the U.N. Security Council apologized.

Clinton said the United States had no interest in offering North Korea carrots to return to the talks.

"We have to be patient," Clinton said. "We intend to have an open door for a return to the six-party talks," she added, referring to talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States on ending North Korea's atomic programs.

"The ball is in the North Korean court. We are not concerned about chasing after North Korea and offering concessions to North Korea."

Separately North Korean ally Iran this week released U.S.-born journalist, Roxana Saberi, after an Iranian appeal court cut her jail sentence for spying in another case seen as a test for Obama's team.

(Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun, Jack Kim and Jonathan Thatcher, and by Arshad Mohammed and Sue Pleming in Washington; editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Dean Yates)

Article Published: 14/05/2009