Reports say North Korea has detained U.S. journalists

New York, March 19, 2009–Diplomats in China, North Korea, and the United States should cooperate to ensure the safe release of two journalists and a guide reportedly detained by North Korea while working near the country’s border with China, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Soldiers guarding the border are believed to have detained U.S. citizens Laura Ling and Euna Lee and a guide they hired in China on Tuesday, according to international news reports. Ling and Lee, staff reporters for the California-based Current TV network and Web site, were reporting on living conditions for North Korean refugees living in China, the reports said. (Some news reports identified Lee as Euna Kim.) The guide, described as ethnic Korean, was not named.

Rev. Chun Ki-won, who works for the U.S. and South Korea-based Durihana Christian mission on behalf of North Koreans seeking asylum across the border, advised the journalists prior to their trip and last spoke to them early Tuesday, according to news reports. Chun’s sources in the region told him they had been arrested, AP said. Chun was not available for comment on Thursday. Current TV did not return e-mail requests for more information.

“We call on all sides to work quickly for the release of these two reporters and their assistant,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator.

The U.S. State Department said today that it was aware that two U.S. journalists had been detained. Spokesman Fred Lash told news organizations that the State Department was in touch with both North Korean and Chinese officials. He did not identify the two detainees.

Details about the arrests were incomplete and conflicting. Lash told CBS News that the two were apparently detained by North Korean border guards in an area where the Tumen River crosses from China into North Korea. Some South Korean news reports, however, said the arrests took place in a border area near the Yalu River, according to accounts published overseas. The South Korean news agency Yonhap said the journalists were detained after they refused to stop filming, according to The Associated Press. Some accounts said the arrests took place on Chinese soil, according to a BBC report.

The North Korean government rarely issues visas allowing foreign journalists to visit the country, and then only under official supervision. Checkpoint guards have displayed hostility towards reporters in nearby Chinese territory, AP said.