The two American journalists held in North Korea for 140 days before former President Bill Clinton brought them home last month have released their first account of the ordeal, deepening suspicions that they may have been lured into a trap by their guide.
Current TV journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee said they crossed the iced-over Tumen River border from the Chinese to the North Korean side for barely a minute on the morning of March 17 and then turned back before North Korean guards pursued them onto Chinese soil.
The two journalists were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for tresspassing and "hostile acts" before reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il released them to Mr. Clinton when he visited Pyongyang on an"unofficial mission" to negotiate their relaese.
It was "a minute we deeply regret," they both said, indicating they were still recovering from the trauma of their ordeal in which they were held in isolated rooms in a "state guest house" before their release.
"We were firmly back inside China when the soldiers apprehended us," they said in a statement on the Current TV website. "We tried with all our might to cling to bushes, ground, anything that would keep us on Chinese soil."
The journalists say they were "no match for the determined soldiers" whom they say "violently dragged us back across the ice to North Korea and marched us to a nearby army base, where we were detained."
The women were in China to report on North Korean defectors, and traveled to the border to see a common route used to smuggle North Koreans into China.
Their producer-cameraman, Mitch Koss, a well known figure in television on the West Coast, managed to escape along with their Korean-Chinese guide, but it's the role of the guide that arouses the deepest doubts.
Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee say the guide beckoned them to make the brief crossing to the North Korean side of the river after changing their starting point on the river bank at the last minute, and even wore a Chinese police coat in order, they believed at the time, to escape detection by Chinese.
The journalists' account jibed with accusations by South Korean human rights activists that the guide, who activists in Seoul say had been held previously in North Korea for his activities escorting North Koreans Koreans back and forth, had cut a deal with North Korean authorities to deliver his foreign clients to them in a plot to arrange their arrests.
Ling and Lee say they are not certain of the guide's role, and Mr. Koss has steadfastly refrained from comment. Koss was held for several days by Chinese authorities and then permitted to return to the US, while the guide's fate remains uncertain.
Ling and Lee strongly deny charges by South Korean activists that they had been compelled to turn over the names of North Korean refugees and refugee guides whom they had interviewed. They said they destroyed their notes shortly after their capture by swallowing them, and destroying the video they had shot so North Korean interrogators would not be able to see it.
South Korean refugee organizations, including the well-known group Durihana, which briefed the two in Seoul before they went to China, say the North Koreans obtained the names of their contacts in China and compromised efforts to bring North Koreans through China to South Korea.