US journalists rescued by Bill Clinton after being sentenced to 12 years' hard labour in North Korea have told how they were "violently" seized by troops after accidentally straying into the closed Stalinist state across its unmarked border with China.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee said they were beckoned across the frozen River Tumen separating the two countries by a local guide who "behaved oddly" and appeared to be communicating with the border guards who subsequently arrested them.
The reporters, who were in the region to research a TV documentary about sex trafficking, turned around as soon as it became clear they had accidentally crossed into Korean territory. They were actually seized from Chinese soil.
"Feeling nervous about where we were, we quickly turned back toward China," they recalled. "Midway across the ice, we heard yelling. We looked back and saw two North Korean soldiers with rifles running toward us. Instinctively, we ran."
Although their producer, Mitch Koss, and the guide were able to outrun the soldiers, Ms Ling and Ms Lee were not so fortunate. They insist that they were "firmly back" inside China when the soldiers apprehended them, shortly after 5am on 17 March. "We tried with all our might to cling to bushes, ground, anything that would keep us on Chinese soil, but we were no match for the determined soldiers," they told a newspaper yesterday. "They violently dragged us back across the ice, and marched us to a nearby army base, where we were detained."
Ms Ling and Ms Lee believe they spent "less than a minute" in North Korean territory. However, they were sentenced in June to hard labour for unspecified "hostile acts". During their ensuing captivity, the women became pawns in a game between Pyongyang and Washington. It ended early last month, when the former president, Bill Clinton, agreed to travel to the country, and hold "humanitarian" talks with its eccentric leader Kim Jong-il, who has repeatedly clashed with the US over his nuclear ambitions. Shortly afterwards, Ms Ling and Ms Lee were pardoned.
"We continue to cope with tremendous mental and emotional anguish, but we feel incredibly fortunate to be free and reunited with our families," they wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
"We cannot adequately express the emotions surrounding our release. One moment, we were preparing to be sent to a labour camp, fearing we would disappear and never be heard from again; the next we were escorted into a room with Mr Clinton, who greeted us and told us we were going home."
The pair, both employees of Al Gore's cable television station Current TV, intended to film a documentary about the sex trafficking of women from North Korea into China. Thousands cross the border each year in an effort to escape poverty and repression.
That film has been abandoned and the women, now reunited with their families, are trying to establish if there was a conspiracy behind their ordeal.