Two American journalists sentenced by North Korea last week to 12 years of hard labor for politically motivated acts were caught filming their illegal crossing into the country, state-run media said Tuesday, providing the first details of their arrest.
The reporting team from Current TV crossed the frozen Tumen River dividing North Korea and China three months ago and walked up the river bank — all the while recording their transgression, the official Korean Central News Agency said.
"We've just entered a North Korean courtyard without permission," the Korean translation of their narration on the videotape said, according to KCNA. One of them picked up and pocketed a stone as a memento of the illegal move, the report said.
Two women — reporter Laura Ling and editor Euna Lee — were arrested in Kangan-ri in North Hamgyong Province, the report said. A third person, Current TV executive producer Mitch Koss, and their Korean-Chinese guide managed to flee, KCNA said.
Last Monday, Lee and Ling were sentenced in North Korea's top court to 12 years of hard labor for what KCNA called politically motivated crimes. They were accused of crossing into North Korea to capture video for a "smear campaign" focused on human rights, the report said.
"The accused admitted that what they did were criminal acts committed, prompted by the political motive to isolate and stifle the socialist system of (North Korea) by faking up moving images aimed at falsifying its human rights performance and hurling slanders and calumnies at it," it said.
The women were detained March 17 at a time of rising tensions between North Korea and the United States over the communist nation's nuclear and missile programs. Weeks earlier, North Korea had announced its intention to send a satellite into space aboard a long-range rocket — a launch Washington called a cover for a test of a long-range missile designed to strike the U.S.
North Korea went ahead with the rocket launch in early April, and in an increasingly brazen show of defiance, conducted a nuclear test on May 25 and fired off a series of short-range missiles in the days before the journalists' trial.
The women's families claim Lee, 36, and Ling, 32, had no intention of crossing into North Korea, and many feared they would become political pawns in any negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. The families have pleaded for leniency and urged their release on humanitarian grounds.
The alleged details of the case involving the two women working for the San Francisco-based media venture founded by former Vice President Al Gore were released by state media just hours before President Barack Obama was to sit down at the White House with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
The two leaders, whose countries fought together against North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, were expected to discuss the North and make a strong show of unity.
Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University, said North Korea was trying to remind the U.S. ahead of the Obama-Lee summit that the women remain in its hands.
"I think the North is sending a message ahead of the summit: 'Don't take your eyes off this. This is a card we have,'" Kim said. "The North is pressing the U.S. to decide whether it's going to resolve the journalist issue through dialogue or not."
After being transferred to Pyongyang and being kept in separate quarters, the women went on trial June 4 on accusations of entering the country illegally and engaging in "hostile acts."
The KCNA report said Lee and Ling were allowed to choose their interpreters. Ling was represented by a defense lawyer of her choice, but Lee — referred to by her Korean name, Lee Seung-un — voluntarily gave up the right to legal defense, it said.
They were sentenced to prison June 8. "The criminals admitted and accepted the judgment," KCNA said.
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