updated 3/21/2009 5:20:38 AM ET 2009-03-21T09:20:38

Two Americans were detained by North Korea for illegally crossing its border and were under investigation, the country's official news agency said Saturday.

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The two female U.S. journalists were arrested March 17 while "while illegally intruding into the territory of (North Korea) by crossing the (North Korea)-China border," the Korean Central News Agency said.

Authorities were investigating the case, KCNA said. The brief dispatch gave no further details.

South Korean media and a South Korean missionary identified the two Americans as Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's San Francisco-based media outlet Current TV.

State Department officials said Washington is in contact with North Korea about the two detained journalists.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton "is engaged on this matter right now," spokesman Robert A. Wood told reporters Friday. "There is a lot of diplomacy going on. There have been a number of contacts made." He did not elaborate.

The incident comes at a sensitive time on the Korean peninsula, with North Korea declaring its intention to fire a satellite-equipped rocket into space in early April — a launch some fear will be a cover for the test-fire of a long-range missile.

Regional standoff
The North also is locked in a standoff with regional powers over its nuclear program, and earlier this week ordered out five U.S. groups that distribute much-needed food aid in a country where the World Food Program says millions are going hungry.

The two reporters were in the border area with a male cameraman and their guide as part of a reporting assignment on North Korean refugees.

The journalists headed to the Chinese city of Yanji, across the border from North Korea's far northeastern corner, where they planned to interview women forced by human traffickers to strip for online customers, according to the Rev. Chun Ki-won of the Seoul-based Durihana Mission, a Christian group that helps defectors.

Video: North Korea threatens all-out war Chun said Ling and Lee contacted him three months ago asking for help organizing a trip to China.

They also planned to meet with children of defectors, Chun said. Many children who grow up on the run in China live in legal limbo, unable even to attend school, according to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report.

The North Korean-Chinese border is long, porous and not well demarcated.

A growing number of North Koreans have sneaked into China to avoid political repression, chronic food shortages and to seek asylum, mostly in South Korea, according to North Korean defectors in South Korea and activists.

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