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North Korea interested in freeing US reporters

North Korea appears "seriously interested" in releasing two convicted American journalists but first wants the United States to acknowledge what Pyongyang sees as their "hostile acts," a US-based scholar who visited Pyongyang said today.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee were detained in March near the North Korean border with China and sentenced last month to 12 years of hard labour for entering the country illegally and for "hostile acts." The two — who work for former US Vice President Al Gore's California-based Current TV media group — were in the area to interview North Korean refugees.

University of Georgia political scientist Han S. Park said "responsible" North Korean officials told him the two journalists have not been sent to a prison labor camp and are being kept at a guesthouse in Pyongyang.

"I also think the fact that the sentence has not been carried out suggests that North Koreans are seriously interested in releasing them if the situation warrants," Park said.

The North Koreans said the US government should offer "a remorseful acknowledgment" of the reporters' actions, according to Park. He said that would help resolve the issue, though cautioned it still may not fully guarantee their release.

In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday that the reporters have expressed "great remorse for this incident." She called on North Korea to grant the two amnesty and allow them to quickly return home to their families. Clinton said "everyone is very sorry that it happened."

The request for amnesty is a shift from previous US calls for the women to be released on humanitarian grounds. It followed comments from Ling's family that she had acknowledged breaking North Korean law during a recent phone call.

Park arrived in Seoul on Thursday via China after what he said was a five-day trip to Pyongyang. He said he had an "extensive discussion" with the North Korean officials but emphasized he was there in a private capacity and not representing the US government.

Park, a frequent visitor to North Korea for academic purposes, said the guesthouse where Ling and Lee are being held is a "decent, luxurious accommodation."

Officials have made sure the reporters "are treated with a great deal of humanitarian concern" such as ensuring the delivery of medication sent from their families and allowing them to make phone calls to the US, the scholar said.

He said the North Korean officials think the journalists' reporting constituted "hostile acts" against North Korea because it would have cast the country in a negative light.

A South Korean who helped organize the journalists' reporting trip to China, the Rev. Chun Ki-won, said in April that Ling and Lee traveled to the border region with North Korea to interview women and children who had fled the impoverished country.

Park's comments came days after Laura Ling told her sister, journalist Lisa Ling, during a 20-minute telephone call that a government pardon is their only hope for freedom.

The journalists' continued detention comes as the US is moving to enforce UN sanctions as well as its own measures against the communist regime for its May 25 nuclear test. The North also recently fired seven ballistic missiles in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.