[JURIST] North Korean state media outlet Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) [media website, in Korean] announced Thursday that the Pyongyang Central Court has begun the trial of two US journalists [KCNA report, in Korean]. Laura Ling [professional website] and Euna Lee were arrested [JURIST report] in March for allegedly crossing into North Korea [Yonhap report] while reporting on North Korean refugees in China for Current TV [media website]. Ling and Lee are charged with unspecified "hostile acts," which the South Korea Ministry of Unification [official website] says may include espionage charges that carry a minimum sentence of five years in a labor camp. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton [official profile] called the charges "baseless," and Phillip Crowley [official profile], Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, said [transcript] that "there is no higher priority that we have than protection of American civilians abroad. And we ... hope that North Korea will forego this legal process and return them to the United States." Free press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) [official website, in French] said that the women were arrested while conducting "solely journalistic" work, and called on the court to show lenience [press release, in French] by acquitting them on all charges.
The trial comes at a sensitive time for US-North Korean relations. Last week, North Korea conducted a second nuclear test [NYT report] in defiance of 2006 UN Security Council [official website] ban on nuclear or missile tests [Resolution 1718 text; JURIST report] by the country. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon [official profile] and other world leaders condemned [statement text] the test. In April, North Korea also violated the resolution when it fired a rocket [NYT report] in an attempt to put a satellite into space and test its missile technology, after ordering UN nuclear inspectors out [press release] of the country. In October 2008, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) [official website] head Mohamed ElBaradei [BBC profile] said he wants North Korea to return [JURIST report] to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [text, PDF; IAEA backgrounder] after a five-year absence. In 2007, North Korea agreed that it would end its nuclear weapons program [JURIST report] in exchange for aid as part of a multi-stage initiative by the Six Party Talks [CFR backgrounder].