SEOUL Two U.S. journalists held by North Korea for illegal entry admitted they crossed into the reclusive state, but said North Korean guards arrested them on the Chinese side of the border and dragged them back into the country.
In their first public account, published on the Los Angeles Times website on Tuesday, Laura Ling and Euna Lee of Current TV said that when they set out onto the frozen river marking the border between the two countries they had no intention of leaving China.
"But when our guide beckoned for us to follow him beyond the middle of the river, we did, eventually arriving at the riverbank on the North Korean side," they said.
They quickly turned back toward the Chinese side of the border and saw armed North Korean guards chasing them, the pair said in their account of the March incident.
"We were firmly back inside China when the soldiers apprehended us," they said.
If accurate, the border crossing by North Korean soldiers could prove problematic for Pyongyang, which relies on China for aid to prop up its broken economy.
The two were released in early August when former U.S. President Bill Clinton traveled to Pyongyang, where he met leader Kim Jong-il and secured their freedom.
Relief agencies said tens of thousands of North Koreans fleeing poverty and famine have crossed over the relatively porous border with China over the years, with crossings increasing when rivers freeze over in winter or dry up in summer.
"We didn't spend more than a minute on North Korean soil before turning back, but it is a minute we deeply regret. To this day, we still don't know if we were lured into a trap," the women said.
The two journalists said they were violently dragged back to North Korea across the frozen river and taken to an army base.
"Over the next 140 days, we were moved to Pyongyang, isolated from one another, repeatedly interrogated and eventually put on trial and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor," they said.
They did not give a detailed account of the questioning.
The two were not sent to one of North Korea's labor camps, where defectors and human rights groups have said torture is common and prisoners often die due to brutal conditions.
The journalists were working on a report about the lives of North Koreans in China, who are seen by Beijing as economic migrants and forcibly repatriated, where they then almost always end up in a North Korean prison.
Many of the North Koreans crossing into China are women who end up living with Chinese men who purchase them from traffickers.
The two said they tried to destroy any evidence that would implicate any North Koreans living in hiding or the relief workers helping them seek asylum in places such as South Korea.
They expressed regret upon hearing reports from aid workers that the arrests have made it more difficult to operate.
"Our experiences pale when compared with the hardship facing so many people living in North Korea or as illegal immigrants in China," they said.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson)