Ling, the sister of former The View co-host Lisa Ling, and Lee were captured by a military patrol after allegedly crossing into North Korea from China while shooting a documentary for the Al Gore media venture Current TV.
"From the U.S. perspective, this couldn't have happened at a worse time," says Ralph Cossa of the Pacific Forum/Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We've just handed the North Koreans two trump cards to play which they will use to their maximum benefit."
A spokesman for Gore says the former vice president and now chairman of Current TV is not commenting "given the sensitivity of the situation." Lisa Ling and Lee's family also decline to comment. "My personal guess is that they'll be treated fairly nicely," says Cossa of the women. "But they'll be scared out of their minds."
While the North Korean government insists that the rocket is designed to put a communications satellite into orbit, many in the international community, including the U.S., believe it may be a test of a far-ranging military missile.
Warning from ObamaOn Friday, President Obama issued a stern warning to North Korea while speaking in France before the NATO summit, saying: "Should North Korea decide to take this action, we will work with all interested partners in the international community to take appropriate steps to let North Korea know that they cannot threaten the safety and stability of other countries with impunity."
Ling and Lee have been held at an undisclosed site since March 17. North Korea has announced that the two women will be tried for "illegal entry" into their country and for committing "hostile acts" against the state. Says expert Cossa: "The North Koreans spell the words 'spy' and 'journalist' the same. They are incredibly paranoid." If convicted, Ling and Lee face up to 10 years in prison, though, adds Cossa, "I'd be shocked if they were still in there three months from now. At some point they will go through the trial and then someone will have to do a mea culpa. But there's really no benefit for North Korea in keeping them forever."