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North Korea Says Two Convicted Journalists Admitted 'Criminal Acts'

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

SEOUL, June 16 -- North Korea said Tuesday that two American journalists it has sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp admitted at their trial that they entered the country illegally to vilify the North's human rights record.

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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 have described as unusually harsh.

North Korea released its account of the closed trial just hours before President Obama met at the White House with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to discuss how to deal with provocations from the North.

The two journalists 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.

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 did cross 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 the journalists had been convicted of much more than just wandering across a border.

"At the trial, the accused admitted that what they did were criminal acts, prompted by a political motive to isolate and stifle the socialist system of North Korea, by faking moving images aimed at falsifying its human rights performance and hurling slanders and calumnies at it," the statement said.

North Korea is widely regarded as having one of the worst human rights records in the world. A U.N. human rights report this year describes the North as a place where ordinary people "live in fear and are pressed to inform on each other."

In a statement Tuesday night, Ling and Lee's families said: "We appreciate that the Government of North Korea released the account of the charges against Laura and Euna. Whatever those charges to which they have confessed, we are sorry and know that they are as well. We desperately hope that the Government of North Korea will show compassion and allow Laura and Euna to come home to their families."

The detention and sentencing of the two journalists have become part of a complex political and military crisis this year on the Korean Peninsula, as North Korea has launched missiles, detonated a nuclear bomb, threatened war against its southern neighbor and vowed never to give up nuclear weapons.

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