Christian activists who work on the North Korean border believe two American television reporters may have walked into a trap when they were detained in March and say their arrests led to a crackdown on refugees.

The pair, Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, were freed last week after former president Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to secure a pardon from Kim Jong Il, the North Korean dictator.

There is still confusion about the exact events on March 17, when soldiers stopped the two women on the frozen Tumen River, which divides North Korea and China.

The reporters, who were sentenced to 12 years’ hard labor, were on assignment for Current TV, a venture set up by Al Gore, Clinton’s former vice-president, which aims to specialize in “cutting edge” news.

Mitchell Koss, 56, a television producer, and Kim Seong-chol, a Chinese-Korean guide, both escaped and were reportedly detained by Chinese police.

“There is a strong suspicion that he [the guide] was heavily involved and it was a trap,” said an experienced activist who has led dozens of refugees to safety. There has been no word of Kim.

Such suspicions are bolstered by a first-hand account given to The Sunday Times by an American missionary who was warned by Chinese police a month earlier that the North Koreans were trying to capture a foreign journalist.

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