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North Korea's trial of US journalists is an attempt to distract dissatisfied public

Jim Arkedis [Director, National Security Project, Progressive Policy Institute]: "With the secretive conviction of American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee this week to twelve years' hard labor in a North Korean camp, you might be surprised to learn that North Korea actually has a functioning judiciary system. Though the West has little insight into how it works, we know that DPRK's 1998 constitution stipulates that trials will be decided by one judge and two "people's assessors," that you don't need legal training to become a judge in North Korea, and that the accused do have the right to an attorney. And defendants can even defend themselves in English, though finding a judge who has learned English, but not law, would hardly be ideal.

But this show-trial is only part of a larger spectacle. When you consider that the Ling/Lee case shot up to Pyongyang's Central Court - bypassing the constitutionally mandated lower provincial courts - it becomes glaringly obvious that the Hermit Kingdom values propaganda, not justice, as its main goal.

Here's how the Ling/Lee act fits into the overarching drama: Thus far in 2009, North Korea has tested four missiles and one underground nuclear device. Reports from early June indicate more missile tests could be on the way. While these actions have raised tensions with North Korea's American, European, and Asian interlocutors, it's no coincidence that they've occurred just as Kim Jong Un—the youngest son of the ailing Kim Jong Il—was announced North Korea's next Dear Leader.

As with most insular juntas, the North Korean ruling elite likely views this transition period as a vulnerable time, when it believes its domestic and international foes are best positioned to topple the government. In the West, though the possibility of an internal coup is relatively unknown, we are confident that the Obama administration isn't about to rain cruise missiles down on Pyongyang. But Kim Jong Il's clique leaves nothing to chance, and these days they are likely extra paranoid.

So, it needs a distraction; or in this case, several distractions. The Ling/Lee show-trial and military muscle-flexing are part of a coordinated act to distract the public by keeping them proud of North Korea's military might, angry at America for sending two spies, while putting America on notice that any aggression will bring consequences.

The timing of Laura Ling and Euna Lee's accidental tourism along the North Korean/Chinese border has been an incredible gift to the regime - the jailed Americans serve as insurance that the Obama administration will think twice before it takes any action, diplomatic or otherwise, that might punish Pyongyang. North Korea will release the two well before their twelve-year sentences are up, but only when its leaders are feeling more secure about their grip on power."

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