BEIJING — When American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee fell into the hands of North Korean border guards two weeks ago, vanishing into the maw of the most isolated nation on Earth, their fate drew concern.
Now the complications are growing.
North Korea appears days — maybe hours — away from test-firing a missile carrying what it asserts is a satellite. Reports say that North Korea is fueling the multi-stage ballistic missile at a launch site in its northeast.
In London on Thursday, President Barack Obama met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, and the two called for "stern, unified action" if the North goes ahead with its launch, the first since 2006, the same year it tested a nuclear device.
Ling and Lee, journalists for former Vice President Al Gore's media venture Current TV, based in San Francisco, have become pawns in a global chess match.
"The girls have become hostages, and a lot of things will depend on high politics," said Andrei N. Lankov, a North Korea specialist at Kookmin University in Seoul and one of the last people whom the two Asian-American journalists contacted before they traveled to North Korea's border with China to investigate the situation of refugees.
Ling's family in suburban Sacramento, Calif., didn't respond to requests for comment. Lee's family couldn't be reached.
North Korea said this week that it would put the two Americans on trial, and suggested that they could face years in a prison camp.
Scholars of North Korea said the women's situation was dramatic but that Pyongyang probably would seek to exchange them for concessions rather than throw them in prison.
"I'm not overly worried about their welfare," said Aidan Foster-Carter, an author on North Korea issues who's retired from Leeds University in Britain. The North Koreans "will want to trade them for something or other."
North Korea appears to be holding the women in a protocol house in Pyongyang.
"The rumor was that they are being housed at one of the guest villas," said Han S. Park, a University of Georgia expert who was visiting North Korea as part of a private U.S. delegation after the women were captured. Park told CNN International that the North Koreans scoffed at any suggestion that the Americans were receiving harsh treatment.
"They laughed. 'We are not Guantanamo.' That's what they said," Park said.
North Korea has told international aviation authorities that it will launch a satellite into space between April 4 and 8. As the launch window approaches, Pyongyang is threatening to retaliate against any nation that tries to shoot down the missile, issuing a new threat Thursday against Japan, which deploys U.S.-supplied Patriot anti-missile units.
"If Japan recklessly 'intercepts' the DPRK's (North Korea's) satellite for peaceful purposes, the Korean People's Army will mercilessly deal deadly blows not only at the already deployed intercepting means but at major targets," the official Korean Central News Agency said.
Japan has said it will fire only if the missile or its debris threatens the nation. Japan and the United States have deployed Aegis destroyers with ballistic missile interceptors to monitor the launch. South Korea reportedly has sent an Aegis warship.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last Sunday that the Pentagon had no plans to shoot down the North Korean missile unless it headed toward Hawaii or other U.S. territory.
However, President Barack Obama will face "tremendous" pressure to take some action against Pyongyang should a missile test occur, Paul Carroll, the program director of the Ploughshares Fund, which supports disarmament efforts, said in a report after he traveled to Pyongyang in late February.
"The U.S. will be under pressure to do some chest beating," Lankov echoed.
With a missile launch, North Korea would be challenging a new U.S. president early in his term and seemingly precluding any hope of improving relations.
"It's a fairly weird way to greet a new U.S. president," author Foster-Carter said.
North Korea isn't known to have seized U.S. journalists before, although it's held other Americans, including soldiers.
In 1994, North Korean forces shot down a U.S. helicopter that Washington said had strayed across the demilitarized zone during a routine training mission. One pilot was killed and another was held for 13 days. In 1996, an American man was held for three months, accused of espionage, after he swam across another border river, the Yalu.
In both cases, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, then a member of Congress, traveled to Pyongyang to intervene on their behalves.
North Korean officials "make little or no distinction between official government spying and spying by individuals," said Ralph A. Cossa, the head of the CSIS Pacific Forum, a research center based in Honolulu.
Cossa said the two women might have placed others in peril as well.
"My real concern was what was on their cameras when they were captured. If they had been talking to other North Korean refugees or people helping them, they could be putting a lot of people at risk," Cossa said in an e-mail message.
Given what's happened with past U.S. prisoners, Lankov said he expected Ling and Lee to be held by North Korea "anywhere between a few weeks and a year."
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