Diplomatic flurry after North Korea seizes US journalists

Did the two women cross into North Korea, or did border guards lure them over?

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREAUS diplomats are working intensively to obtain the release of two American journalists seized by North Korean border guards as they were shooting film along the Tumen River border with China.

The US government confirmed Thursday the two, both young women on assignment for Al Gore’s Current TV network, remain in North Korean hands since the guards grabbed them Tuesday morning after warning them not to shoot scenes along the river.

What’s not clear is whether the pair had ventured onto the icy river and strayed onto the North Korean side, whether the North Koreans lured them to cross the center of the ice, or whether the border guards crossed the line onto the Chinese side and pulled them onto North Korean territory.

US diplomats hoped to get a full reading on the incident – and to get North Korea to return the journalists – before the episode exploded into a major diplomatic ruckus in a period of worsening North Korean relations with South Korea as well as the US. (Click here to read about the rising tensions.)

The State Department is working through the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which represents US problems there in the absence of diplomatic relations between the US and North Korea, and also through North Korea’s United Nations mission in New York. The US special envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, who visited the country earlier this year, was also expected to try to revive contacts with North Korean negotiators while pursuing revival of six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.

The two were identified as Laura Ling, a Chinese-American, and Euna Lee, a Korean-American. Their guide, a Korean-Chinese, was also picked up. One other person on the team, identified as Mitch Koss, who had apparently been well on the Chinese side of the line, avoided capture.

The US Embassy in Seoul was reluctant to comment in view of the sensitivity of the incident.

North Korean rhetoric against the US has intensified amid annual US-South Korean military exercises that wind up this week. The North has warned of “all-out confrontation” while denouncing South Korea’s conservative president, Lee Myung Bak, as a “traitor” and American “lackey.”

North Korea also has announced its intention to launch a Taepodong-2 missile between April 4 and April 8. The North has stated the missile will really be the booster vehicle for sending a satellite into orbit, but US, Japanese, and South Korean officials have all said they view the launch as a test flight for a missile that’s capable of delivering a nuclear warhead as far as Alaska, Hawaii, or the US West Coast.

The journalists, on assignment for Current TV’s Vanguard program, were reporting on North Korean refugees, thousands of whom have crossed the Tumen River border in recent years seeking refuge in China. Foreign journalists have frequently gazed at North Korea from the Chinese side of the narrow river, easily traversed over the ice in winter or waded across in the summer.

From the Chinese side, one sees stark, whitewashed North Korean apartment blocks set against a background of hills that are mostly stripped of wood for heating and cooking, and few people. Factories on the North Korean side are mostly shut down, with only a few wisps of smoke giving evidence of activity. Large signboards proclaim the joys of life in North Korea. (The Monitor reported from inside North Korea late last year, here and here.)

North Korean border guards remain largely out of sight, but occasionally emerge. They are said to be open to bribes from would-be refugees on the way to China, but the Chinese also return refugees when they capture them, classifying them as “economic migrants” rather than victims of human rights violations.

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