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Page last updated at 11:55 GMT, Wednesday, 5 August 2009 12:55 UK

Profile: US reporters freed in N Korea

By Michael Dobie
BBC News

US journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee told their families they had no intention of entering North Korea when they went to the border with China to report on the plight of North Korean refugees.

Laura Ling (R) and Euna Lee (R) at Pyongyang airport - 5 August 2009
Laura Ling (L) and Euna Lee (R) looked very relieved to be leaving Pyongyang

But on 17 March they were seized by North Korean border guards and accused of illegally entering the country to carry out "hostile acts".

After more than four months in captivity, a high-level visit from former US President Bill Clinton secured their release.

Euna Lee and Laura Ling are journalists with San Francisco-based Current TV, a media venture co-founded by former US Vice-President Al Gore.

Ms Ling, a 32-year-old California native, has experience covering the conflict in Sri Lanka, Brazilian slave labour and Iran's underground youth culture.

Ms Lee, a 36-year-old South Korean-born US citizen, is an editor with Current TV.

From the time they were captured, the two women's families urged the authorities in Pyongyang to release them, saying they were worried about the "mental state and wellbeing" of the pair.

In a joint statement, the families said Ms Ling suffered from an ulcer and that Ms Lee had a four-year-old daughter who was "displaying signs of anguish".

"We believe that the three months they have already spent under arrest with little communication with their families is long enough," the statement said.

While I am trying to remain hopeful, each day becomes harder and harder to bear. I am so lonely and scared
Laura Ling, in a letter home

Ms Ling's husband, Iain Clayton, appeared on US TV networks and read out a letter she had written from captivity: "While I am trying to remain hopeful, each day becomes harder and harder to bear. I am so lonely and scared."

Their hopes appeared dashed in early June when a quick trial saw them convicted and sentenced to 12 years of "reform through labour".

'Smear campaign'

Initially, there were denials from the American side that they had gone into North Korea - and both South Korean media and diplomatic sources said the North's guards had crossed into Chinese territory to arrest them.

But a few days after their trial, the North's state media said the two had admitted entering the North and accepted their sentences.

Official news agency KCNA also said they had admitted getting footage for a "smear campaign" about North Korea's human rights.

Their sentences could potentially have seen the two women working in a prison labour camp in North Korea's notoriously brutal penal system.

It seems, however, that the two were well-treated and kept in a Pyongyang guest house, with access to consular services provided by Sweden's embassy in North Korea and allowed to make several phone calls to their families in the US.

Sino-Korea Friendship Bridge over the Yanu River in Dandong
North Korea and China share an 880 mile (1,400 km) border

It was during these phone calls that the pair said Pyongyang had suggested that a visit by Mr Clinton could secure their freedom, US officials have said.

Analysts say they were probably being kept as bargaining chips to wrest concessions or direct talks with the United States.

But the US has said Mr Clinton did not discuss any other issues other than the women's freedom during his trip to Pyongyang.

The reporters' families, and officials in Washington, had urged that Pyongyang keep this case separate from the nuclear issue bedevilling relations between North Korea and the US.

Washington insists it will only hold bilateral talks on the nuclear stalemate with Pyongyang under the auspices of the stalled six-party negotiations - which also include South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.

Tensions in the region have soared in recent months, as North Korea has conducted a nuclear test and fired a long-range missile, drawing widespread international condemnation.



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