Journalists caught in the nuclear crossfire

Two US reporters fear they face punishment by a bellicose North Korea as tensions escalate with the West

The families of two American journalists accused of illegally entering North Korea say they have now been held in solitary confinement for more than two months and are "very, very scared" about their trial, which begins in Pyongyang this morning.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee have seen just one visitor since their arrest in March and their contact with the outside world has consisted of a handful of handwritten letters and a single late-night telephone call.

They are apparently crying constantly and trying to pass time by practicing yoga and meditation.

The women, both experienced reporters, were picked up by North Korean troops on 17 March while apparently filming a documentary for a San Francisco-based cable TV company about people-smuggling across the Stalinist dictatorship's northern border with its closest ally, China.

Ling and Lee are charged with "entering the country illegally" and unspecified "hostile acts," and face a maximum sentence of 10 years' hard labour if found guilty by Pyongyang's highest court, where their future is due to be decided today.

The recent escalation in tensions over the country's nuclear programme has only worsened the women's plight, turning them into valuable diplomatic bargaining chips.

Their families, who on the advice of the US State Department maintained a careful silence during the first 70 days of their imprisonment, toured TV studios this week to highlight their plight, amid signs that quiet diplomacy is failing to have the desired effect.

"We have been holding our breath as we've watched the political situation grow increasingly tense," said Ling's sister, Lisa. "As their days in detention progress, we've become increasingly concerned about their wellbeing and state of mind. Though the girls are strong, we know they are very, very scared." Lisa Ling, who is herself a prominent TV news reporter, had a brief telephone conversation with her sister last week.

"Imagine. 11 o'clock. Phone rings. I hear this little voice on the other end of the line saying, 'Hi, Li, it's me,'" she recalled. She said Laura "apologises profusely" if she had mistakenly crossed the border and has urged restraint by demonstrators holding a series of candlelit vigils for the women across major US cities last night.

"We're told that they're going to have a lawyer appointed," she said. "We are hoping and praying... that they get a fair trial and [North Korea] will show mercy and let the girls come home to their families."

America does not have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. As a result, Ling and Lee's only visitor in captivity has been the Swedish ambassador, Mats Foyer. He has been allowed access on just three occasions, most recently on Monday, serving as a conduit for letters to and from relatives. One of the letters was read out by Ling's husband, Iain Clayton, on NBC's Today programme this week.

"I'd cried so much during my first few days in jail," it read. "I'm lucky my family is working so hard to get me released. Know that I'm thinking of you, and dreaming about being reunited with you all again... I am so lonely and scared. But baby, thinking of you gives me strength."

The relatives hope to secure their release on humanitarian grounds. Ling is suffering from an ulcer, they say, while Lee has a four-year-old daughter, Hannah, left behind at home. "She still thinks Mommy is at work," Lee's husband, Michael Saldate, said.

In the likely event that Ling and Lee are convicted, efforts to secure their release will probably be led by Bill Richardson, the Governor of New Mexico and a former US ambassador to the UN who has twice previously travelled to Pyongyang to help release detained Americans. "The North Koreans want to use these two American detainees as bargaining chips," Mr Richardson said. "They want direct talks with the United States. It's a high-stakes poker game."

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