- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2009

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.

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