Sentencing of U.S. Journalists by North Korea Seen as Way to Engage Washington


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New York, June 8, 2009 — The sentencing by North Korea of two U.S. reporters to 12 years of hard labor is an attempt by the reclusive hard-line government in that country to be taken seriously by the Obama administration more so than to punish the journalists, says a leading expert on Korean law.
“This issue will be resolved,” said Jeong-Ho Roh, Director of the Center for Korean Legal Studies at Columbia Law School. “It’s a process of engagement that North Korea is looking for.”
Euna Lee and Laura Ling, reporters for Current TV, were sentenced today after being found guilty of committing “hostile acts” toward North Korea and illegally entering the country. The two were detained March 17 near the Chinese border. Their families have said the journalists were reporting a piece on the trafficking of North Korean women into China.
Roh said the sentence is a way for Pyongyang to maximize its leverage with Washington.  “I don’t think the reporters will do hard labor. It’s simply not in the North Koreans’ interests to make them go through that.”
Lee and Ling were convicted following a five-day trial in the Central Court, North Korea’s top court. The Communist nation has a two-tier court system. Normally, the high court would not take cases like this one, but Roh said an exception was made to “get the trial done quickly and not make it appealable and take away any variable with the legal process.”
However, the charges itself – which are not recognized under international law – appeared to be a calculated move by Pyongyang to get the attention of Washington and not send the reporters to a labor camp. By not accusing Lee and Ling with espionage and branding them as spies, North Korea offered a “face-saving way of resolving this issue,” Roh noted.
Rather, what North Korea may be after is a way to engage with the still-young Obama administration and make its presence felt. That this sentence comes after North Korea this spring restarted its main nuclear power plant, and conducted several missile tests and an underground nuclear test is no accident, according to Roh.
“Essentially, it’s a whole package of brinksmanship,” Roh said. “They want to say to the Obama administration, ‘Take us seriously and, in turn, we’ll resolve this issue for you.’”
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