North Korea said Saturday it was investigating two Americans it detained Tuesday for "illegally intruding" into its territory after crossing the border from China.
A brief dispatch from the North's official Korean Central News Agency gave no other details, but it was apparent confirmation of reported arrests of two female U.S. journalists reporting on North Korean refugees in the border area.
South Korean media and a South Korean missionary identified the two detained Americans as Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's San Francisco-based media outlet Current TV.
A U.S. official said Saturday that the U.S. has been in touch with North Korean representatives about the journalists and is awaiting a reply. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing the sensitivity of the issue, said the U.S. doesn't know where the North is holding them.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency said Sunday, in a report from the Chinese city of Yanji, that it is highly likely that they were sent to Pyongyang to be investigated for their alleged border intrusion.
"Considering the significance of the case, there is a high possibility that the two U.S. journalists have been sent to Pyongyang and are undergoing a direct investigation" by the North's spy agency and military, Yonhap quoted a source in China it described as privy to North Korean affairs.
Yonhap quoted other sources in China as saying the North's confirmation of the arrest appeared to demonstrate that Pyongyang's intelligence and military headquarters are directly interrogating the journalists.
Yonhap also said the North is expected to "politically" use the U.S. journalists in its negotiations with the U.S. government.
Ties between Washington and Pyongyang already have been strained over the North's refusal to fully verify its past nuclear activities and its announced plan to launch a satellite into orbit in early April. U.S. and other regional powers argue the launch is a cover for a long-range missile test.
The two journalists, along with a male cameraman and a guide, were headed to Yanji, across the border from North Korea's far northeastern corner, where they planned to interview women forced by human traffickers to strip for online customers, according to the Rev. Chun Ki-won of the Seoul-based Durihana Mission, a Christian group that helps defectors.
They also planned to meet with children of defectors, said Chun, who helped the journalists organize the trip. Many children who grow up on the run in China live in legal limbo, unable even to attend school, according to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report.
The North Korean-Chinese border is long, porous and not well demarcated and thus a common route for escape from the North.
A growing number of North Koreans have sneaked into China to escape political repression and chronic food shortages and to seek asylum, mostly in South Korea, according to North Korean defectors in South Korea and activists.