SEOUL, S. Korea – North Korea said Tuesday that two American journalists it sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp admitted at their trial that they entered the country illegally to slander the North’s human rights record.
It was the first explanation from the government of Kim Jong Il about why Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were detained in March while working on a story about North Koreans who flee to China, were given sentences last week that many outsiders regarded as unusually harsh.
The women were arrested on the North Korean side of the Tumen River after entering the country illegally from China, said the statement, which was released by the official Korean Central News Agency.
“We have just entered North Korean territory without permission,” a narrator said on a video found in the reporters’ possession, the statement said. It also said one of the reporters picked up and kept a pebble as a souvenir.
Two others in the reporting team that crossed the river, producer Mitch Koss and a Korean Chinese guide, managed to flee, the statement said.
There have been no definitive independent accounts of where the journalists were when they were detained. Members of their families in the United States have apologized on their behalf, if the two had crossed into North Korea. The U.S. government has asked that the women be released immediately on humanitarian grounds.
But North Korea’s statement made it clear that it has found the women guilty of much more than just wandering across a border.