N.Korea charged U.S. reporters with spying

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two U.S. journalists detained by North Korea since last week appear to have been charged with espionage, the State Department said on Tuesday.

The skyline of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on a foggy day, January 23, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer

“We’re certainly aware of the charges,” said State Department spokesman Robert Wood, asked to comment on media reports the pair had been charged with spying.

“The North has assured us the detainees will be well-treated,” Wood said.

The United States, which does not have a diplomatic presence in North Korea, is trying to resolve the case of the two journalists, who were arrested by North Korean guards at the border with China last week.

The two, identified by South Korean media as Euna Lee and Laura Ling, have been moved to the capital Pyongyang and are being interrogated there, a South Korean newspaper said, quoting intelligence sources.

Their arrest came at a time of mounting tension on the Korean peninsula, with the North accusing the United States and South Korea of aggressive behavior while Pyongyang continued preparations to launch a long-range missile.

“We understand the two female reporters are staying at a guest house in the suburb of Pyongyang overseen by the Security Command (the North’s intelligence agency) and are being interrogated,” the South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo quoted an intelligence source as saying.

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The two were arrested before dawn on March 17 and driven in separate cars the next day to Pyongyang, JoongAng Ilbo reported.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service could not immediately comment on the report.

The women, who media sources said were working for U.S.-based online news company Current TV, probably crossed the river and were on the North Korean side at a point where the current narrowed in a secluded part of the river, the newspaper said.

A senior State Department official who spoke on condition that he not be identified said it had been “communicated” to the United States that the two faced espionage charges, but he declined to give details.

Asked why information was so scant on the jailed pair, he said: “We are dealing with a very unpredictable actor.”

An American cameraman, Mitch Koss, and a Chinese guide who was with the three were detained by Chinese police, media said.

“The male American citizen involved in the case has left China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters Tuesday.

He did not comment on the status of the two reporters in North Korea.

A diplomatic source said the two reporters were on the frozen Tumen river, which runs along the eastern portion of the border with China, when they were taken by North Korean security guards.

It took three months to secure the release of an American in 1996 after he was detained by North Korean guards when he crossed the Yalu River that also separates the North and China.

Reporting by Jack Kim; Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by David Storey