Chinese authorities detained a group of South Korean journalists and others for a fourth day Friday on suspicion of spying while on a reporting trip near China's border with North Korea, officials in Seoul said.
The Chosun Ilbo newspaper first reported the detentions Friday, saying that four journalists from the newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, a researcher and a guide were taken into custody Tuesday in a military restricted zone near the Tumen River that marks the border.
Three South Korean Foreign Ministry officials confirmed that JoongAng Ilbo reporters were detained near the river, and said they were being held at a hotel. But they disputed parts of the Chosun Ilbo account, saying five people, not six, were detained, and they would not confirm the number of journalists nor whether they were caught inside a restricted military zone.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of efforts to secure the reporters' release. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing said the agency was looking into the reports, but otherwise refused to comment. JoongAng Ilbo declined comment.
China is always touchy about border security and in the best of circumstances dislikes snooping by foreign reporters. The border with ally North Korea is particularly sensitive, with many North Koreans sneaking across to look for work, find food or flee poverty and repression.
One of the South Korean officials said the reporters were traveling on tourist visas. China requires foreign reporters to obtain journalist visas if they want to report inside the country and has expelled or jailed reporters working without proper credentials.
In 2003, China imprisoned a South Korean freelance journalist on charges of human trafficking. Seok Jae-hyun, who was photographing North Korean defectors he was helping to escape, was released after 14 months in prison.
One South Korean official said he expected the latest case of detention to last at least a week.
The two Koreas fought a civil war to a stalemate a half-century ago, and conditions inside closed-off North Korea are of great interest to more prosperous South Korea.
The border between China and North Korea often draws foreign journalists who hope for a glimpse into the impoverished North. In 2009, American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested on the North Korean side of the border for trespassing while reporting on the sex trade. North Korea released them 4 1/2 months later after former President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang to seek their freedom.