- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

SEOUL | The detention of two American journalists by North Korea poses yet another challenge for the Obama administration as it seeks to engage the nuclear-armed nation.

The two Americans, who worked for an online television network owned by former Vice President Al Gore, were arrested by border guards earlier this week while traveling near the North Korea-China border, according to South Korean media reports that were confirmed by the U.S.

Yonhap news agency said the Americans were arrested after accidentally crossing into North Korea. But the YTN television news channel said the North’s guards crossed into China to take the U.S. reporters into custody.

The disappearance is likely to complicate U.S.-North Korea relations amid plans by Pyongyang to defy the U.N. Security Council by testing a long-range missile in early April. The U.S. is also seeking a way to restart six-nation talks on the North’s nuclear program.

South Korean Foreign Ministry officials said they were aware of the incident, but they refused to provide details, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

U.S. officials were working with the Chinese and other intermediaries to learn details of the disappearance and win the journalists’ freedom. Washington has no direct contact with officials in North Korea.

“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 in Washington.

The two journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were caught Tuesday morning, said a source who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation.

They had traveled to the border area to report on North Korean refugees in China. Their guide, an ethnic Korean-Chinese, was also detained, according to the source.

China has been the primary escape route for the North’s asylum seekers. Escapees can fairly easily cross the Yalu and Tumen rivers into China at narrow points with low banks.

Analysts in Seoul said the North is expected to use the latest detention case to win concessions from the United States over the missile and nuclear issues.

“This case can provide fresh momentum for dialogue between North Korea and the United States,” said Kim Yong-hyun, who teaches North Korean affairs at Dongguk University in Seoul.

The North’s recent saber-rattling maneuvers, highlighted by its preparations to launch a long-range rocket in early April that can hit U.S. territory, are largely aimed at grabbing attention from the new U.S. president, the professor said.

The North is also angry at South Korea and the United States for holding joint military exercises.

Raising tensions further, the North has recently rejected U.S. food shipments and has asked U.S. aid groups to leave the country by the end of the month, despite chronic food shortages.

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