North Korea has commended two soldiers who apprehended a pair of U.S. journalists earlier this year along the country's border with China, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported Thursday.

Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, captured in March while reporting a story on North Korean defectors, were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for trespassing and "hostile acts" against North Korea. They were held in a Pyongyang guesthouse until the North pardoned them in early August after a landmark trip by former President Bill Clinton.

After their release, the Americans, who were reporting for former Vice President Al Gore's San Francisco-based Current TV, wrote that they briefly crossed into the North early in the morning of March 17 but were "violently dragged" back from Chinese soil by two North Korean border guards. They said that their producer Mitch Koss and a guide escaped by outrunning the guards.

The two soldiers appeared in a North Korean state television program broadcast Thursday to mark the 18th anniversary of leader Kim Jong Il's assumption of command of the country's army, Yonhap reported. The program's anchor said Kim has given them an award for apprehending Ling and Lee and also gave them special leave, according to Yonhap.

The soldiers said that several people crossed the frozen Tumen River into North Korea on March 17 and took photos, Yonhap reported. They also said they overpowered them at gunpoint, believing they entered the North with hostile intent.

Son Yong Ho, one of the soldiers, said that he received a hero's welcome when he later arrived in his hometown, according to Yonhap.

At the time of their capture, Ling and Lee were reporting about North Korean women who were forced into the sex trade or arranged marriages when they defected to China.