SEOUL, South Korea – Two female U.S. journalists imprisoned in North Korea for months say communist soldiers "violently dragged" them back when they returned to Chinese soil after briefly crossing into the reclusive country.
In an article posted Tuesday on Current TV's Web site, Laura Ling and Euna Lee said they hesitantly followed their guide when he beckoned them across a frozen river into the North and were "firmly back" on the Chinese side when North Korean border guards grabbed them on March 17.
"We tried with all our might to cling to bushes, ground, anything that would keep us on Chinese soil, but we were no match for the determined soldiers," the journalists wrote in their most thorough account of the circumstances of their arrest. "They violently dragged us back across the ice to North Korea and marched us to a nearby army base, where we were detained."
At the time of their arrest, the two were reporting a story for San Francisco-based Current TV about North Korean women who were forced into the sex trade or arranged marriages when they defected to China. After their capture, Lee and Ling were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for trespassing and "hostile acts" against North Korea.
The women were moved to a Pyongyang guesthouse and held there until the North pardoned them in early August after a landmark trip to Pyongyang by former President Bill Clinton.
The release helped ease rising tension on the Korean peninsula following North Korea's defiant nuclear and missile tests earlier this year. Since then, the regime has taken a series of conciliatory steps toward Seoul and Washington such as the release of five detained South Koreans and agreeing to restart stalled joint projects with South Korea.
The journalists said they "didn't spend more than a minute on North Korean soil before turning back" to the Chinese side, and recalled there were no signs marking the international border at the area.
Lee and Ling suggested they might have been lured into crossing the border by their Korean-Chinese guide.
"To this day, we still don't know if we were lured into a trap," the two wrote. "In retrospect, the guide behaved oddly, changing our starting point on the river at the last moment and donning a Chinese police overcoat for the crossing, measures we assumed were security precautions."
At the riverbank on the North Korean side, the guide pointed out a small village in the distance where he said North Koreans were waiting in safe houses to be smuggled into China, the journalists said. But they said they quickly turned back to China as they felt nervous about where they were.
The journalists didn't explain why the guide behaved that way and acknowledged it was "ultimately our decision" to follow him. The guide and Current TV producer Mitch Koss were able to escape at the time of arrest.
Ling and Lee said while they were in detention, they swallowed their notes, damaged their videotapes and made other efforts to protect the identities of their sources.
They said they regretted if any of their actions led to increased scrutiny of activists and North Koreans living along the border.
The two said some parts of their captivity were too painful to revisit publicly, but their experiences "pale when compared to the hardship facing so many people living in North Korea or as illegal immigrants in China."
"We continue to cope with tremendous mental and emotional anguish, but we feel incredibly fortunate to be free and reunited with our families," they said.