SEOUL, South Korea — As global powers debate how to punish North Korea for its nuclear defiance, two American journalists seized nearly three months ago face a trial this week in Pyongyang on charges that could land them in one of the country's notorious labor camps.
North Korean guards detained Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV media venture, at the northeastern border with China on March 17. Activists who helped organize their trip say they had been reporting on North Korean women and children who fled to China as refugees.
North Korea accused the Americans of engaging in "hostile acts" and crossing into communist North Korea illegally, and announced two weeks ago the women will stand trial Thursday in the nation's top court.
Their detention and trial comes at a sensitive time in the diplomatic scramble to rein in an increasingly belligerent Pyongyang, which conducted an underground nuclear test last Monday and punctuated the defiance with an array of short-range missile tests.
Analysts say North Korea could use the trial to better its hand before Obama and South Korea's Lee Myung-bak hold a White House summit June 16.
"Having two journalists detained in the North leaves the U.S. very little maneuvering room, since Washington now has to take the women's safety into account," said Yoon Deok-min, a professor at South Korea's state-run Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.
Isolated North Korea is desperate to normalize ties with the U.S., analysts said.
The trial of Ling and Lee could provide a diplomatic opening for direct talks with the U.S.
On the day the trial is set to begin in Pyongyang, candlelight vigils will be held across the U.S. The families of Lee and Ling were to appear on NBC's "Today" show and CNN's "Larry King Live" today.
"To say that this has been stressful would be to grossly understate how hard this has been. Our families have been very quiet because of the extreme sensitivity of the situation, but given the fact that our girls are in the midst of a global nuclear standoff, we cannot wait any longer," sister Lisa Ling wrote in a message posted to a Facebook page for Ling and Lee.