North Korea has confirmed reports via state-run media that it took two U.S. journalists into custody as Washington engages at the highest levels to resolve the situation diplomatically.
North Korea's official news agency issued a report Saturday saying the journalists were arrested on March 17 while "illegally intruding into the territory" of the country at its border with China.
Sources in contact with the two reporters prior to the incident say they are Chinese-American Laura Ling and Korean-American Euna Lee. They work for San Francisco-based Current TV, a network founded in part by former Vice President Al Gore. Both were apparently gathering video footage for a report on human rights abuses of North Korean refugees who cross into China.
Tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled to China since the mid-1990s to escape severe food shortages and political repression. Many of them are women who end up under the control of sex traffickers.
Despite Pyongyang's allegation, it remains unclear whether the women crossed illegally into North Korean territory or whether North Korean soldiers crossed into China to seize them.
The State Department in Washington says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is getting personally involved in robust efforts to secure the journalists' release.
Kim Byung-ki, an international relations professor at Seoul's Korea University, believes getting Washington's attention was the North's goal in the arrests.
"I'm pretty sure that the kidnapping, or detaining, is not an independent incident. It is, I believe, an overall diplomatic approach," Kim said.
Kim believes the incident is a means of forcing diplomatic contact between North Korea and the United States. He says the North may be hoping to use the contact as a channel for other issues, such as talks to end North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.
Kim added that the arrest also fits a pattern of changing politics in the North, noting that "the hard-liners are the ones that are in control right now."
North Korea announced earlier this month it would launch what it calls a "communications satellite" in early April. The United States and its regional allies have warned Pyongyang not to conduct the launch, which they believe is actually a step forward in the North's ballistic missile program.
A 2006 United Nations resolution prohibited such missile launches after North Korea conducted a test of a nuclear weapon.