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North Korea Detains Current TV Journalists: Reports

JEAN H. LEE   03/19/09 11:09 PM ET   AP

North Korea

SEOUL, South Korea — Two American journalists were missing Friday after they reportedly were detained by North Korea for ignoring warnings to stop shooting footage of the reclusive country.

Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's online media outlet Current TV, were seized Tuesday along the Chinese-North Korean border, according to news reports and an activist who had worked with them. Their Chinese guide also was detained although a third journalist with the group, Mitch Koss, apparently eluded capture.

U.S. officials expressed concern to North Korean officials about the reported detentions and said they were working with the Chinese government to ascertain the whereabouts of the Americans.

"When you have two American citizens who are being held against their will, we want to find out all the facts and gain their release," State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said Thursday in Washington.

U.S. officials also were in contact with Swedish diplomats in North Korea. Sweden's Ambassador to Pyongyang, Mats Foyer, refused to say in an e-mail whether negotiations for the Americans' release were under way but acknowledged that Sweden acts as Washington's representative because the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea.

Calls to North Korea's mission to the United Nations in New York went unanswered Thursday.

In San Francisco, an employee of Current TV told reporters: "There will be no comment on the situation anytime today."

Ling is a sister of Lisa Ling, a former co-host of the American TV talk show "The View" and now a contributing correspondent for National Geographic Channel's "Explorer" TV show. She said the family had no comment.

The arrests came at a time of heightened tension on the Korean peninsula, with North Korea declaring its intention to shoot a satellite into space next month. Fearing the launch will be a cover for the test-fire of a long-range missile, regional powers are urging the North to refrain from firing any rockets.

In Washington, the top U.S. commander in the Pacific, Adm. Timothy Keating, called the launch a threat to U.S. security.

"We'll be prepared to respond," he told lawmakers, adding that "the United States has the capability" to shoot down any missile.

South Korean media first reported the detentions early Thursday, with YTN television saying two Americans were arrested near the Tumen River dividing North Korea and China. The Yonhap news agency, citing diplomatic sources, said North Korean soldiers took them into custody after they ignored orders to stop filming.

Reporters Without Borders called for the immediate release of the journalists and their guide and urged Chinese authorities to intercede on their behalf "as they were probably on Chinese soil when they were arrested."

The group said it is difficult for the foreign press to work freely in the Chinese border province of Jilin. It ranks North Korea lower than any other Asian country on its press freedom index.

The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York also pushed for the journalists' release.

"We call on all sides to work quickly for the release of these two reporters and their assistant," Bob Dietz, CPJ's Asia program coordinator, said in a statement.

North Korea is one of the world's most isolated and repressive nations, run with absolute authority by leader Kim Jong Il. It is also one of the poorest countries, its economy devastated by flooding and mismanagement, with millions relying on outside food aid.

The journalists were seeking to interview North Korean defectors hiding in China, according to an activist who claims he helped them map out their trip.

The Rev. Chun Ki-won of the Seoul-based Durihana Mission, a Christian group that aids defectors, said he arranged interviews with North Korean defectors but warned them to stay away from border areas.

"I told them very clearly not to go to the border because it's dangerous," he told The Associated Press by telephone from Washington.

Chun said he last spoke to them by phone Tuesday morning. The women told him they were in the Chinese border city of Yanji and were heading toward the Yalu River near the Chinese city of Dandong.

They were detained that day, along with their guide, Chun said, citing sources he refused to name. He said it was unclear whether they were seized in North Korean or Chinese territory.

He also said his sources told him that Koss, a cameraman, escaped arrest "at the last minute." He said he did not know where Koss was Thursday.

The Tumen and Yalu rivers dividing North Korea and China are frequent crossing points for both trade and the growing number of North Koreans fleeing their country.

This time of year, the Tumen River in North Korea's far northeast is still frozen over in places, making it easy for people to traverse the porous border.

A growing number of North Koreans go to China in search of food, medicine and jobs _ or to escape. Chinese living along the border say North Korean spies have long acted with impunity when policing or trying to retrieve their own people.

In Beijing, where North Korean Premier Kim Yong Il met Thursday with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said officials were "investigating the issue involving relevant U.S. nationals on the border between China" and North Korea.

Past detentions have required international intervention. In 1996, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, then a congressman, went to North Korea to help secure the release of an American detained for three months on spying charges. In 1994, he helped arrange the freedom of a U.S. soldier whose helicopter had strayed into North Korea.

Ling, apparently sending updates about her trip to the online site Twitter, wrote Saturday that she was at the Seoul airport en route to the "China/NKorea border."

"Hoping my kimchee breath will ward off all danger," she wrote.

Three days earlier, she wrote: "Spent the day interviewing young N. Koreans who escaped their country. Too many sad stories."

Her most recent entry on Twitter, from Monday, read: "Missing home."

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Associated Press writers Kwang-tae Kim and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, Foster Klug in Washington, and Gillian Wong and Alexa Olesen in Beijing, contributed to this report.

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Filed by Hanna Ingber Win  |