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(Soundbite of crowd)

SCOTT SIMON, host:

We're joined now from Seoul by NPR's Anthony Kuhn.

Anthony, thanks very much for being with us.

ANTHONY KUHN: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: I guess we should explain that noise behind you first. You're at a demonstration.

KUHN: Yes, that's right. I'm at a second day of anti-government protests and candlelight vigils at Seoul City Hall, following the death of President Lee Myung-bak by suicide exactly a week ago today. The protestors are ringed by riot police. Last night, they cleared the square. We'll see what happens this evening. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: It was actually former President Roh Moo-hyun who committed suicide.]

SIMON: Hmm. And they are protesting what, Anthony?

KUHN: Well, they're protesting against the government of President Lee Myung-bak. They believe that he hounded the former President Roh Moo-hyun to kill himself a week ago. They're also unhappy about what they see as authoritarian policies that hark back to the Cold War dictatorship days, before the 1980s.

This also includes the North Korea question. They feel that Lee Myung-bak's hard line on North Korea has caused the North Koreans to strike back and to test a nuclear weapon and missiles.

SIMON: Let's get, if we can, back to the case of the journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling. North Korea state media, as we mentioned, has said they'll stand trial next Thursday. What do we know about North Korea's court system? Is it a court system?

KUHN: Well, it certainly is a court system, but we know this trial is not very ordinary. We know that it's being handled at a court that does especially sensitive cases. And this suggests that this is above all a political trial and probably will be decided at very high levels of the government what exactly the outcome will be.

SIMON: So it doesn't sound like much of a trial. They have an outcome and then they cut the trial to fit.

KUHN: Not a lot of information has come out of North Korea. There have only been very, very terse statements in the state media. The U.S. has had no consular access to these two journalists. So it's really only through those diplomats that are in Pyongyang, such as the Swedes, and what little information has come out from the families of the journalists who have really been basically silent on this so far.

SIMON: I want to ask you about remarks that Defense Secretary Robert Gates made today, where he warned North Korea against threatening the United States and its allies, especially Japan, it was inferred.

What does a warning amount to though? Is that military action or something else?

KUHN: Gates is attending a forum of regional security chiefs. And what he said was that the U.S. will not sit idle while the North Koreans develop the means, the capabilities, to strike at the U.S. and their allies. Now, he didn't go into any details about what the U.S. might do.

But what he was saying was that if the North Koreans keep on testing long and short-range ballistic missiles and they keep on testing nuclear devices, this is going to change the strategic calculation in East Asia.

For example, one thing I believe they discussed at this forum is that the U.S. is going to hand over operational command of the forces in South Korea to the South Koreans in 2012. Now, that might be altered if the North Korea continues its current course.

SIMON: And would that throw a chill up North Korea's spine or is it exactly what they want?

KUHN: Well, it seems that North Korea is definitely trying to get a reaction. This spate of testing is aimed, I think, both at South Korea and the U.S. And the Obama administration has made it very clear for the outset that they were willing to go into direct talks with North Korea, but they have essentially been rebuffed.

And so I believe that the nuclear tests and the missile tests were actually planned in advance and they're just going ahead with it at a very quick schedule. There have been six missile launches in the past week and one nuclear test.

SIMON: And finally, Anthony, is the fate of the journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, somehow tied up in this overall geopolitical situation?

KUHN: There's no question. And there's no question that in this case it definitely gives leverage to North Korea. They can basically decide what to do with them. If they want to use them to engage in talks, that's one thing. If they want to try to use them as a concession for some other thing, that's possible too. But of course they face charges of hostile acts against North Korea and illegally entering the country. And so if they go by the books, it's possible that these two journalists could end up in a labor camp for several years.

SIMON: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul, thanks very much.

KUHN: Thank you, Scott.

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