NKorea: US journalists plotted 'smear campaign'

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - One video recorder, six tapes, a digital camera and a stone: North Korea laid out its evidence against two American journalists sentenced to hard labor for entering the country illegally.

The country's official news agency reported Tuesday that the journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, documented their journey into communist North Korea, even pocketing a stone to commemorate the illicit trip across the frozen Tumen River from China.

"We've just entered a North Korean courtyard without permission," the Korean translation of their videotape narration said, according to Korean Central News Agency.

Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, who work for former Vice President Al Gore's California-based Current TV media group, were sentenced last Monday to 12 years of hard labor in a North Korean prison for illegal entry and "hostile acts."

Before Tuesday's report, little was known publicly about the journalists' arrest March 17.

The timing of its release - just hours before President Barack Obama met with South Korea's leader Lee Myung-bak and days after the U.N. Security Council issued new sanctions against North Korea for a May nuclear test - raised fears the women were being used as political pawns.

North Korea wants to remind the U.S. that the women remain in Pyongyang's hands, said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University.

"The North is sending a message ahead of the summit: 'Don't take your eyes off this. This is a negotiating card we have,"' Kim said.

KCNA said it released the report to "let the world know crimes committed by Americans at a time when an unprecedented confrontation with the United States has been created on the Korean peninsula."

"The accused admitted that what they did were criminal acts, prompted by the political motive to isolate and stifle the socialist system of the DPRK by faking up moving images aimed at falsifying its human rights performance and hurling slanders and calumnies at it," the agency said. The DPRK stands for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

A joint statement Tuesday by the familes of the two journalists said that "whatever those charges to which they have confessed, we are sorry and know they are as well."

The statement said the families "desperately hope" that North Korea will show compassion and free the two women.

Brent Marcus, a spokesman for Current TV, said the company had no comment on the developments. A spokesman for Gore also declined comment.

KCNA warned Washington that North Korea was watching its next moves closely.

"We are following with a high degree of vigilance the attitude of the U.S. which spawned the criminal act" against North Korea, the report said.

North Korea and the U.S. fought on opposite sides of the 1950-53 Korean War. Decades later, the two Koreas technically remain at war. Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic relations.

Analysts say normalizing ties with the U.S., which keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea, is a key goal of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who is believed to be paving the way to tap his youngest son to be his successor.

Lee Jung-hoon of Yonsei University said North Korea's main objective is to ensure the survival of the regime, and gaining an assurance that the U.S. won't attack is crucial.

"North Korea's intention is to use these imprisoned American journalists as bargaining leverage in dealing with the United States," he said.

Ling and Lee fell into North Korean hands at a time of rising concerns about the country's nuclear and missile programs. Weeks earlier, North Korea had announced its intention to send a satellite into space - a launch Washington called a cover for testing a long-range missile designed to strike the U.S.

North Korea went ahead with the rocket launch in early April, and in an increasingly brazen show of defiance conducted a nuclear test on May 25. It then fired off a series of short-range missiles in the days before the journalists' trial.

TV journalist Lisa Ling of National Geographic "Explorer," the jailed reporter's sister, has said the women had no intention of crossing into North Korea when they set out to do a story about North Korean defectors living in China. She has pleaded for their release on humanitarian grounds. There was no immediate response from the families Tuesday.

The Committee to Protect Journalists criticized North Korea for a lack of transparency in the case and said the report did not mitigate concerns about the reporters' well being.

Meanwhile, KCNA described in its print report what it called proof that the reporters sneaked into the country to carry out a "smear campaign," including their confessions, the video equipment and photos.

The agency also accused the Current TV team of lying on Chinese visa applications, identifying themselves as computer specialists on vacation, KCNA said. North Korea rarely allows foreign journalists into the country.

In this case, the agency reported, they walked over the frozen river and up the banks to Kangan-ri in North Korea's North Hamgyong Province at dawn, videotaping their arrival. Lee and Ling were arrested, while Current TV executive producer Mitch Koss and a Korean-Chinese guide fled, KCNA said.

The women went on trial June 4 on charges of entering the country illegally and engaging in "hostile acts."

The KCNA report said Lee, a Korean American, and Ling, a Chinese American, were allowed interpreters. Ling was represented by a defense lawyer but Lee - referred to by her Korean name, Lee Seung-un - voluntarily gave up the right to legal defense, it said.

Last Monday, Lee and Ling were sentenced in Pyongyang's top court to 12 years of hard labor.

"The criminals admitted and accepted the judgment," KCNA said.


Associated Press writer Jae-soon Chang contributed to this report.


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