- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 21, 2009

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - North Korea detained two Americans for illegally crossing its border and is investigating them, the communist country’s official news agency said Saturday.

The two female U.S. journalists were arrested March 17 “while illegally intruding into the territory” of North Korea after crossing the border with China, the Korean Central News Agency said.

Authorities were investigating, KCNA said. The brief dispatch gave no further details.

The arrests come at a sensitive time, with the North planning to fire a satellite-equipped rocket into space in early April _ a launch some fear will be a cover for testing missile technology.North Korea said Saturday that it plans to close two air routes through its territory from April 4-8 _ the period it has set for the launch.

The North also is locked in a standoff with regional powers over its nuclear program, and earlier this week ordered five U.S. groups that distribute much-needed food aid to the impoverished country to leave by the end of March.

The isolated country has repeatedly shut its southern border in recent days and severed a hot line between the two Koreas to protest joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. It restored the telephone link, the only one between the rivals, on Saturday.

South Korean media and a South Korean missionary identified the two detained Americans as Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore’s San Francisco-based media outlet Current TV.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Seoul said he had no further information. He asked not to be named, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

State Department officials said Washington is in contact with North Korea about the detentions.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton “is engaged on this matter right now,” spokesman Robert A. Wood told reporters Friday. “There is a lot of diplomacy going on.”

The U.S. has also informed the North that it is willing to hold a high-level meeting to push for a quick release of the reporters, South Korea’s Munhwa Ilbo newspaper reported Saturday, citing an unnamed South Korean government source.

The two reporters were in the border area with a male cameraman and their guide as part of a reporting assignment on North Korean refugees.

The journalists were headed to the Chinese city of Yanji, across the border from North Korea’s far northeastern corner, where they planned to interview women forced by human traffickers to strip for online customers, according to the Rev. Chun Ki-won of the Seoul-based Durihana Mission, a Christian group that helps defectors.

They also planned to meet with children of defectors, said Chun, who helped the journalists organize the trip. Many children who grow up on the run in China live in legal limbo, unable even to attend school, according to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report.

The journalists and cameraman Mitch Koss were following a guide across the frozen Tumen River early Tuesday morning when North Korean soldiers armed with rifles approached them from a half-hidden guard post, the South Korean Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported Saturday. It cited activists working with North Korean refugees in China and other unidentified sources.

Koss and the guide pushed the North Korean soldiers away and ran back toward China, but Ling and Lee were caught, the newspaper said, citing an unidentified source.

Koss and the guide were later seized by Chinese border guards and sent to the Chinese Public Security Bureau, the newspaper said. Their whereabouts remain unclear.

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 avoid political repression, chronic food shortages and to seek asylum, mostly in South Korea, according to North Korean defectors in South Korea and activists.

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