- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - Two American journalists were detained by North Korean soldiers while on a reporting trip earlier in the week near the country’s border with China, South Korean news reports and a South Korean missionary said Thursday.

The journalists _ Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for the California-based online media outlet Current TV _ were taken into North Korean custody on Tuesday, a missionary who spoke to them earlier that day told The Associated Press.

The Rev. Chun Ki-won of the Seoul-based Durihana Mission said by telephone from Washington that he had been informed that the two women and a guide hired in China to assist them had been detained but refused to reveal his sources. Chun is a South Korean activist who helps North Korean refugees seek asylum.

In Seoul, U.S. Embassy spokesman Aaron Tarver said he had no information about the reported arrests and referred calls to the State Department. U.S. officials in Washington could not be reached for comment.

“China is investigating the issue involving relevant U.S. nationals on the border between China and (North Korea),” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters in Beijing.

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young told reporters he had no comment.

The South Korean newspaper Munwha Ilbo reported Thursday that a U.S. reporter had been detained near the border. YTN television also said two Americans were arrested near the Tumen River, a border area near North Korea’s northeast, and the Yonhap news agency, citing unnamed diplomatic sources, said North Korean soldiers took them into custody after they ignored orders to stop filming.

Chun, confirming the reporters’ identities, said he met with the two in Seoul recently to help them plan their trip to the border to report on North Korean refugees, and last spoke to them by telephone early 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 border city of Dandong, he said.

The Tumen and Yalu rivers are frequent crossing points for both trade and the growing number of North Koreans seeking to escape across the border. Chun’s group for years has helped North Korean defectors hiding in China and in Southeast Asian countries seek asylum in the U.S. and South Korea.

Chun said he arranged for the reporters to meet with North Korean defectors in South Korea and China, 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 said.

Current TV, a network co-founded by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, devotes much of its programming to viewer-created short programs called “pods.” It won an Emmy last year for best interactive television service.

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.

In a post three days earlier, she wrote: “Spent the day interviewing young N. Koreans who escaped their country. Too many sad stories.”

The most recent entry, from Monday, simply read: “Missing home.” The username for “lauraling” does not say she is a reporter for Current TV, but the person appearing in the profile photo appears to be the same person whose photo appears on the Current TV site.

The Chinese-North Korean border is porous. Famine in North Korea and an economic boom in China have proved an attractive combination for the tens of thousands of North Koreans crossing into China in search of food, medicines, jobs or escape.

The Chinese government complains about the incidents but most incursions are dealt with quietly if at all. Chinese living on the border say North Korean spies have long acted with impunity when policing or trying to retrieve their own people.

Foreign journalists standing on the Chinese side of the border are often jeered at by North Korean border guards, some brandishing rifles just steps away.

South Korean missionaries assisting North Korean refugees have also been at risk. In 2000, the Rev. Kim Dong-shik was kidnapped from the Chinese border city of Yanbian and taken to North Korea.

In 1996, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson _ then a New Mexico congressman _ went to North Korea and helped secure the release of an American detained for three months on spy charges. In 1994, he also helped arrange the freedom of a U.S. soldier whose helicopter had strayed into North Korea.

North Korean Premier Kim Yong Il has been holding discussions with senior Chinese government officials in Beijing this week, and was to meet Premier Wen Jiabao later Thursday.

___

Associated Press writers Gillian Wong and Alexa Olesen in Beijing and Jean H. Lee in Seoul contributed to this report.

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