SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - Two American journalists detained at
North Korea's border with China are under investigation by North
Korean military intelligence officers who suspect they were engaged
in espionage activities, a report said Tuesday.
North Korea has said its border guards arrested two Americans on
March 17 for "illegally intruding" after they entered the country
from China. The two have been identified as Laura Ling and Euna
Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's San
Francisco-based media outlet Current TV.
South Korea's mass-circulation JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said
Tuesday that the American women had crossed the border from China
while reporting on North Korean refugees.
They were taken to Pyongyang a day after their arrest, and were
being held at a guest house run by the military intelligence agency
on the outskirts of the capital, the newspaper said, citing an
unnamed South Korean intelligence officer.
North Korean investigators were checking the journalists'
cameras, video tapes and notebooks to try to establish if they had
been spying on the North's military facilities, the report said.
North Korea "will not treat the female journalists harshly,
although they will undergo intense interrogation," the paper
quoted another unnamed South Korean intelligence officer as saying.
South Korea's main spy agency, the National Intelligence
Service, said Tuesday that South Korean and U.S. intelligence
authorities had been keeping a close watch on the case, but that it
could not immediately confirm the JoongAng Ilbo report.
Seoul's Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the
North, also said it could not confirm the report.
A U.S. official said Saturday that the U.S. has been in touch
with North Korean representatives about the journalists and was
awaiting a reply. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity
citing the sensitivity of the issue, said the U.S. did not know
where the North was holding them.
Ties between Washington and Pyongyang already have been strained
over the North's refusal to fully verify its past nuclear
activities and its announced plan to launch a satellite into orbit
in early April. U.S. and other regional powers argue the launch is
a cover for a long-range missile test.
The North Korean-Chinese border is long, porous and not well
demarcated and thus a common route for escape from the North.
A growing number of North Koreans have sneaked into China to
escape political repression and chronic food shortages and to seek
asylum, mostly in South Korea, according to North Korean defectors
in South Korea and activists.