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'N Korea suspects US journalists were spying'

Two American journalists seized by North Korean border guards are facing "intense interrogation" in Pyongyang for alleged espionage after illegally crossing into the country from China, a report said.

world Updated: Mar 25, 2009 12:32 IST

Two American journalists seized by North Korean border guards are facing "intense interrogation" in Pyongyang for alleged espionage after illegally crossing into the country from China, a report said.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, journalists working for former Vice President Al Gore's San Francisco-based Current TV, were at a guesthouse on Tuesday in Pyongyang's outskirts run by North Korean military intelligence, the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said, citing an unidentified South Korean intelligence official.

The report provided first word of the women's whereabouts since they disappeared on March 17 during a trip to the border near North Korea's far northwest. A colleague detained on the Chinese side left China on Tuesday.

South Korea's main spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, and the Unification Ministry said they could not confirm the details, reportedly obtained using "human intelligence" _ sources on the ground.

In Washington, US State Department spokesman Robert Wood called the matter "extremely sensitive" and said North Korea has assured US officials the journalists would be treated well. He said the US, which has no official diplomatic presence in North Korea, has asked Swedish diplomats there to request access to the women. If convicted of espionage, the women face at least five years in prison under North Korean law, South Korea's Unification Ministry said.

Their detention comes during heightened tensions as North Korea prepares to fire a communications satellite into space next month, which some regional powers believe will be a test of its long-range missile technology.

In Pyongyang, investigators were poring over the two American journalists' notebooks, videotapes and cameras amid allegations they "illegally intruded" into North Korean territory and were spying on the regime's military facilities, the JoongAng Ilbo said. JoongAng Ilbo noted that while an espionage conviction could bring five years in prison, conviction on charges of illegally crossing the border and spying on the North's military facilities could draw more than 20 years for each woman.

An activist who claims he helped the journalists plan their trip has said they were reporting on North Korean refugees in China. The Rev Chun Ki-won told The Associated Press he warned them against getting too close to the border.

JoongAng said they entered North Korea by crossing the Tumen River that divides the country from China early in the morning of March 17. The narrow river, frozen this time of year, is a frequent escape route for refugees.

A North Korean soldier stopped the journalists and took them into custody when their IDs revealed they were Americans, the report said, citing unidentified sources. The two reportedly were taken to Pyongyang a week ago.

A third US journalist, Current TV cameraman Mitch Koss, reportedly eluded North Korean border guards but was detained by Chinese border guards. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters in Beijing that Koss left the country on Tuesday. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders called for the journalists' immediate release, and urged China and North Korea to clarify where the women were detained. Their capture in China would violate international law, the group's Asia-Pacific Desk chief said. "It's a kidnapping; it's not an arrest," Vincent Brossel told reporters in Seoul.

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 US soldier whose helicopter had strayed into North Korea.

First Published: Mar 25, 2009 12:30 IST