Asia Diplomats Cautious on North Korea Detention of US Journalists
By Kurt Achin
19 March 2009
Silence is defining the early hours of what may become a tense negotiation between the United States and North Korea. The U.S. State Department says it is aware of reports the North has two U.S. citizens in custody. The two are believed to be journalists reporting at the North's border with China.
In the South Korean capital, senior leaders are maintaining official silence about the apparent arrest of two American journalists by North Korea. They say it is a matter to be settled between the North's government and the United States.
Senior U.S. Embassy officials in Seoul referred all inquiries to the State Department in Washington.
Local media reports say North Korean guards had detained the two journalists at the Tumen River, which serves as a border between North Korea and China.
The Foreign Ministry in Beijing says it has little information to offer at this time.
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang says China is investigating the matter, and may have more information to provide later.
Sources in Seoul confirm the two detainees are an ethnic Korean American named Euna Lee, and a Chinese American named Laura Ling. They were apparently compiling video material on North Korean refugees. Tens-of-thousands of North Koreans have fled to China since the mid-1990s to escape starvation and political repression at home.
It remains unclear whether the two journalists were on the Chinese side of the river, the North Korean side, or somewhere in the middle.
Tim Peters, a Seoul-based Christian activist who works for the welfare of North Korean refugees and women trafficked across the Chinese border, says he was in the same Tumen River area two weeks ago with a small video camera when Chinese police pulled him aside.
"One of the things they said, and it is interesting, and I thought they were totally exaggerating, was, 'you know, if you are traveling alone, you know the North Koreans will occasionally come across and grab someone that they think is a journalist,'" said Peters.
Recently tensions on the Korean peninsula have heightened. The United States is wrapping up two weeks of annual military drills with South Korea aimed at ensuring the South can defend against any attempt to repeat the North's 1950 invasion.
Pyongyang has called the exercises "reckless warmongering," and warned it could not guarantee the safety of South Korean civilian aircraft during the drills.
The United States, Japan and South Korea have also warned the North not conduct its planned launch of a long-range rocket, which Pyongyang says will take place in early April. The United States and Japanese militaries have not ruled out shooting down the rocket, an action North Korea warns will result in war.
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