SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea stayed silent Friday about the fate of two U.S. journalists who were supposed to go on trial a day earlier on charges they entered the country illegally and engaged in "hostile acts" _ allegations that could draw a 10-year sentence in a labor camp.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's California-based Current TV, were arrested March 17 near the North Korean border while on a reporting trip to China.
Their trial began in the communist country's highest court at a time of mounting tensions on the Korean peninsula following the regime's provocative May 25 nuclear test.
As the United Nations and Washington discussed how to punish the regime for its defiance, there were fears the women could become political pawns in the standoff with Pyongyang.
Analyst Choi Eun-suk, a professor of North Korean law at Kyungnam University, said the court could convict the women, and then the government could use them as bargaining chips with the United States.
"The North is likely to release and deport them to the U.S. _ if negotiations with the U.S. go well," Choi said.
The two nations do not have diplomatic relations, and experts called Pyongyang's belligerence a bid to grab President Barack Obama's attention.
North Korea's official news agency said the trial would begin by mid-afternoon Thursday, but nearly one day later, there was no word on the status of the proceedings. A State Department spokesman said American officials had seen no independent confirmation that the case was under way.
North Korea has said no observers will be allowed to watch.
Few details are known about how Ling and Lee have been treated since they were arrested nearly three months ago. So far, family members have not reported mistreatment.
North Korea's government is notorious for its brutality, but the most recent accounts indicate the regime has softened its treatment of imprisoned foreigners. Still, the experience has left scars on almost all who endured it.
In 1996, Evan C. Hunziker was detained for three months after being accused of spying. The 26-year-old American entered North Korea by swimming across the Yalu River on the Chinese border.
Hunziker, whose mother was Korean, said he went there out of curiosity and "to preach the Gospel." Other reports said he got drunk and decided to go for a swim. Hunziker was freed after New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was then a congressman, negotiated his release.
Hunziker's father said his son refused to talk about his detention, saying only that he was treated humanely and that the food was bad. In a letter to his mother, he said he was moved from a prison to a hotel.
The North Koreans initially demanded a payment of $100,000 as a fine but eventually agreed on $5,000 to settle Hunziker's hotel bill. The family agreed to pay.
Hunziker, who had a long history of drug, alcohol and legal problems, committed suicide a month after he was freed.
Three years later, the North Koreans detained retired Japanese journalist Takashi Sugishima, who was accused of using a hand-held tape recorder and camera to collect intelligence for Japan and South Korea _ an allegation he denied.
Sugishima said he was held for two years in a warm, comfortable cell in a mountain detention facility. He was given three hot meals a day and never tortured.
"The treatment I received was more humane than I expected," Sugishima said. Still, he added, the experience was "extremely trying," and he worried constantly that he might not survive.
Some of the harshest conditions were endured by Ali Lameda, a poet and member of Venezuela's Communist Party. He said he was invited to North Korea in 1966 to work as a Spanish translator but quickly became disillusioned with the propaganda.
The next year, Lameda said, he was accused of spying, sabotage and infiltration. He was detained in a damp, filthy cell for a year without trial and survived on dirty scraps of bread and watery vegetable soup. He was often interrogated from noon to midnight. Once, the guards beat his swollen bare feet.
"Whilst in my cell, I could hear the cries of other prisoners," Lameda wrote in an account provided to Amnesty International. "You can soon learn to distinguish whether a man is crying from fear or pain or from madness in such a place."
During the day, detainees were kept awake because the guards said prisoners could not ponder their guilt while asleep, he said.
Shortly after his release, Lameda was tried again. There were no formal charges or specific allegations against him in the one-day hearing, he said. Court officials kept demanding that he confess his guilt.
He was sentenced to 20 years in a freezing labor camp near the town of Sariwon, about 40 miles (60 kilometers) south of Pyongyang. The camp had 6,000 prisoners who worked 12 hours a day making vehicles and mattresses.
"The cell that I was taken to had no heating except for a pipe running through it which became warm for approximately five minutes each night," he said. "The windows were iced-up and my feet froze."
Lameda served six years before being released again in 1974 without explanation.
He was luckier than his colleague, French translator Jacques Sedillot, who was arrested at the same time and suffered the same treatment. Sedillot was released with the Venezuelan poet but died before he could leave North Korea.
State-run media have not defined the exact charges against the women from Current TV, but South Korean legal experts said conviction for "hostility" or espionage could mean five to 10 years in a labor camp.
Choi, the professor, said a ruling by the top court would be final.
The State Department has not divulged details about negotiations for the journalists' freedom.
Back home, the reporters' families pleaded for clemency.
Ling's sister, TV journalist Lisa Ling, said on CNN's "Larry King Live" that the women "are essentially in the midst of this nuclear standoff."
She urged the governments to "try to communicate, to try and bring our situation to a resolution on humanitarian grounds _ to separate the issues."
In several U.S. cities, supporters of the two women held vigils Wednesday for their release. In New York, dozens of people turned out in a drenching rain, holding yellow chrysanthemums. Gatherings also took place in San Francisco and Santa Monica, California.
Associated Press writers Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul, William C. Mann and Foster Klug in Washington, Ginny Byrne in New York, and John Mone in Santa Monica, California, contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Facebook page for Lee and Ling: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid60755553149