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US reporters face trial in North Korea

Women journalists who face five years in jail may be used as bargaining chips

Two American journalists who were detained by North Korean guards while reporting about refugees on the country's border with China last month are to face trial accused of straying into its sovereign territory with "hostile intent", officials in Pyongyang said yesterday.

The decision to put the women on trial stirred fears they were being held as "political hostages" as North Korea faces off with the US over its alleged nuclear proliferation activities. The reporters, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, work for the online broadcaster Current TV.

The plan for a trial was confirmed by the communist state's official news agency, which said "relevant agencies" of the government had "decided to formally bring them to trial, based on their documented crimes". Observers said the women could face five years in prison each. Another US journalist, Roxana Saberi, who also holds Iranian citizenship, was sentenced to eight years in jail by a court in Iran last week for purportedly spying for the US.

Any indication that North Korea intends using Lee and Ling as human bargaining chips in future negotiations with the US could worsen an already fragile diplomatic situation.

North Korea started to push its way to the top of Barack Obama's foreign policy priority list when it fired a long-range ballistic missile on 5 April.

A statement of condemnation by the UN Security Council prompted North Korea to eject all UN nuclear inspectors from the country and declare a withdrawal from six-party talks on its nuclear programme.

Last night, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, said after a visit to Pyongyang that there was still no sign of the North Koreans returning to the negotiating table. Washington is saying little about the reporters publicly. The Swedish government has been working on the case on behalf of the US.

"North Korea is going to make them the most valuable bargaining chip as it can," said Kim Taewoo, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. He said he would expect the trial of the women to be "just a formality".

Ling and Lee were filming a report about North Koreans fleeing their country and the harsh conditions they met upon arrival in China. They were arrested on 17 March, apparently after straying into North Korean territory in an area along the Tumen River, where the frontier between the two countries is not marked.

In the past, North Korea has backed off its nuclear programme and taken steps to decommission its facilities in return for pledges of foreign aid. But the behaviour the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-Il is notoriously hard to predict, which may explain the relatively low-profile response to the incarceration of the two journalists.