SEOUL, South Korea – Two American journalists being held by North Korea may have been led across the border from China by a guide promising them exclusive footage of human trafficking or drug deals, an activist who helped organize their trip said Wednesday.
The Rev. Chun Ki-won says he repeatedly warned Laura Ling and Euna Lee by phone not to stray into North Korean territory in the days before their March 17 detention.
Chun, who said he helped arrange their trip to China to report on North Korean refugees living in border towns, said the reporters kept in close contact, calling him twice daily. They followed his advice to the word, and never mentioned wanting to sneak into North Korea, he said.
"They didn't tell me about it in advance," he told The Associated Press, showing a reporter e-mail exchanges with Lee. "They were not supposed to go there."
The guide and a third American, cameraman Mitch Koss, reportedly escaped arrest last week but were detained by Chinese border guards. Koss has left the country, China's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday. His whereabouts Wednesday were unclear.
The three journalists work for former Vice President Al Gore's San Francisco-based Current TV.
The reporters' detentions come at a sensitive time, with Pyongyang planning to fire a satellite into space in early April. Washington and its allies have warned the North that a launch will draw international sanctions.
North Korea has assured Washington the Americans are being treated well, the State Department said Tuesday, without providing details about their condition or progress in any negotiations for their release.
A South Korean newspaper said the two were undergoing "intense interrogation" at a military guesthouse in Pyongyang's outskirts for alleged espionage and for crossing the border illegally. The Unification Ministry said conviction on espionage charges carries a punishment of at least five years in prison.
Past detentions have required international intervention. 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 U.S. soldier whose helicopter had strayed into North Korea.
One South Korean who ended up in the North after going for a dip in the Tumen River that divides China and North Korea described weeks of interrogation on accusations of "illegally intruding" before he was expelled to China.
Novelist Kim Ha-gee told the AP he couldn't resist trying to swim to North Korea in 1996, and ended up face-to-face with border guards. Kim said he was taken to a military prison for interrogation he described as physically and verbally abusive, with one investigator kicking him in the side.
A day later, he was taken to an inn in the northeastern city of Hoeryong, where agents questioned him about his motives.
"The atmosphere was not good during the interrogation, and one of investigators kept banging the table," Kim recalled by telephone from the southern city of Busan. He said interrogators seated him on a chair and tied his hands with a belt.
The investigators divided up their roles: One playing bad cop, the other good cop.
"The 'bad' investigator threatened me with jail if I continued to demand repatriation to South Korea while the 'good' investigator tried to persuade me to live in Pyongyang by tempting me with new shoes."
The North Koreans told Kim, who has a wife and two children in the South, to get married in the North.
Kim said he staged a hunger strike for about 10 days. After about 15 days of interrogation, he was sent to China and eventually returned to South Korea.
Chun said his heart goes out to the reporters' families, with whom he spoke by telephone during a recent trip to the U.S, describing the conversations as tearful.
"I feel really sorry for them," he said. "I'm sorry for their families."
Chun, who heads the Seoul-based Durihana Mission, a Christian group that helps defectors from North Korea, said the women contacted him about three months ago asking for help organizing a trip to report on North Korean defectors living in Chinese border towns.
Ling, Lee and Koss flew to Seoul first to get his help arranging interviews with North Korean defectors in China, he said.
The three got into China on March 13 and conducted several interviews with defectors, with Lee calling about twice a day to report on their whereabouts, he said. Their last phone conversation was the morning of March 17.