SEOUL, South Korea (AP) Two American journalists faced trial Thursday in North Korea on accusations of illegal entry and "hostile acts" in a case that could send them to a labor camp for 10 years, while their families pleaded for leniency.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's California-based Current TV media venture, were arrested March 17 near the North Korean border while on a reporting trip to China.
North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said in a brief dispatch earlier Thursday that the trial would begin at 3 p.m. (0600 GMT) in the Central Court. There was no immediate word on whether the proceedings had begun.
The trial was taking place at a time of mounting tensions on the Korean peninsula following the regime's provocative nuclear test last week.
As discussions continued at the United Nations and in Washington on how to punish the regime for its defiance, there were fears the women could become political pawns in any negotiations North Korea undertakes.
Analyst Choi Eun-suk, a professor of North Korean law at Kyungnam University, said the court could convict and sentence the women to labor, and then use them as bargaining chips in negotiations with the U.S.
"The North is likely to release and deport them to the U.S. -if negotiations with the U.S. go well," Choi said.
North Korea and the U.S., former Korean War foes, do not have diplomatic relations, and analysts called Pyongyang's recent belligerence a bid to grab President Barack Obama's attention.
"One explanation of North Korea's behavior is that Pyongyang is trying to catch Washington's attention. It believes the Obama administration has not made North Korea a priority," said David Straub of Stanford University's Korean studies program.
Back home, the reporters' families pleaded for clemency.
"All we can do is hope the North Korean government will show leniency," Ling's sister, TV journalist Lisa Ling, said in an emotional plea at a California vigil Wednesday night. "If at any point they committed a transgression, then our families are deeply, deeply sorry. We know the girls are sorry as well."
State-run media have not defined the exact charges against them, but South Korean legal experts said conviction for "hostility" or espionage could mean five to 10 years in a labor camp. Choi said a ruling by the top court would be final.
The circumstances of their arrest were hazy. The Current TV team had gone to the Chinese border city of Yanji to report on the trafficking of North Korean women, Lisa Ling said.
"Too many sad stories," her younger sister posted to Twitter days before her arrest.
They were seized somewhere near the frozen Tumen River dividing North Korea and China while a cameraman and their guided managed to evade the North Korean guards.
"What they set out to do almost three months ago was to tell the world a story. I know that what Laura and Euna were trying to do was give people a voice," Lisa Ling said in a statement.
In New York, dozens turned out in a drenching rain for a vigil led by Ling's cousin Angie Wang. Some held yellow chrysanthemums. "Nobody should be holding people for purely political gamesmanship purposes," said J.B. Miller, 44.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley called for their release. "We continue to consult with the families. And there is no higher priority that we have than protection of American civilians abroad. And we, again, hope that North Korea will forego this legal process and return them to the United States," he said Wednesday.
Media groups also pressed for their release. "We urge that their fate not be linked to the ongoing security situation on the Korean Peninsula," Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement. "Euna Lee and Laura Ling were acting as journalists, not criminals, and should be released."
Roxana Saberi, an American journalist who spent four months in an Iranian prison before being released May 11 on a suspended sentence for spying, urged the women to "remain strong." "I haven't been to North Korea, but I understand it is even more of a closed state than the Islamic Republic of Iran," Saberi said in a statement. "Still, if Laura and Euna's situation resembles anything like mine, I can imagine a little of what they might be wishing for: The presumption of innocence until proven guilty. A fair trial, with access to attorneys of their choice and the right to study what is claimed as evidence against them. More contact with their families, whom they probably worry are worrying about themselves!"