SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — One shouted about God's love as he crossed a frozen river, clutching a Bible. Another swam, drunk and naked. Several U.S. soldiers dashed around land mines.
Time and again, Americans over the years have slipped illegally into poor, deeply suspicious, fervently anti-American North Korea, even as it has become increasingly easy to enter legally as a tourist. It's incomprehensible to many, especially since tens of thousands of desperate North Koreans have crossed in the opposite direction, at great risk.
On Tuesday night, a U.S. citizen apparently tried to swim across a river separating the Koreas, eager to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, local media reported. And on Sunday, a young American who entered as a tourist but then tore up his visa was sentenced to six years of hard labor on charges he illegally entered the country to commit espionage.
Sneaking into autocratic, cloistered North Korea has proven a strange and powerful temptation for some Americans.
Sometimes the spur is deep religious conviction. Sometimes it's discontent with America and a belief that things will be different in a country that can seem like its polar opposite. Quite often, analysts say, it's mental or personal problems — or simply a case of a person acting upon a very, very bad idea.
Whatever their reasons, Americans detained in North Korea, including three currently in custody, are major complications for Washington, which must decide whether to let a U.S. citizen languish or to provide Pyongyang with a propaganda victory by sending a senior U.S. envoy to negotiate a release.
In the Cold War, a handful of U.S. soldiers, some of whom knew little about life in the North, fled across the Demilitarized Zone and later appeared in North Korean propaganda films.
Charles Robert Jenkins, of North Carolina, deserted his army post in South Korea in 1965. He was allowed to leave North Korea for Japan in 2004.
Other defector soldiers had problems in their military units or issues with family at home. One was reportedly lured north by a female North Korean agent.
In the decades after the war, some Americans harbored "glamorous notions of North Korea as a socialist paradise," said John Delury, an Asia expert at Yonsei University in Seoul. "But that's just not part of the mix any more. Even in the furthest fringes of American online culture, you don't find that notion."
Mental health issues have often played a part, Delury said.
"It's seen as a forbidden country ... a place that's perceived in the American mind as being locked down," Delury said. "To cross the border, in some ways, could be alluring" to people looking to break social rules.
Evan C. Hunziker had reportedly been drinking with a friend in 1996 when he decided to swim naked across the Yalu River between China and the North. Hunziker, who was released after about three months, had drug, alcohol and legal problems. He was later found dead in Washington state in what was ruled a suicide.
Religion has provided a powerful impulse for some to cross.
North Korea officially guarantees freedom of religion, but outside analysts and defectors describe the country as militantly anti-religious. The distribution of Bibles and secret prayer services can mean imprisonment or execution, defectors have said.
"It is one of the last frontiers to spread the Christian faith, so there are people who would take unimaginable risks" to evangelize there, Delury said.
A Bible in his hand, American missionary Robert Park walked into North Korea on Christmas Day 2009 to draw attention to human rights abuses and to call for the resignation of then-leader Kim Jong Il. Park, who was deported from the country in February 2010, has said he was tortured by interrogators.
In 2011, ex-President Jimmy Carter visited North Korea to win the release of imprisoned American Aijalon Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for crossing illegally into the North from China.
It was unclear what led Gomes, who had been teaching English in South Korea, to cross. But he may have been emulating Park, said Jo Sung-rae, a South Korean human rights advocate who met with Gomes. Gomes attended rallies in Seoul calling for Park's release before he was arrested.
For North Korea, getting a senior U.S. official or an ex-president to visit is a huge propaganda coup. It allows Pyongyang to plaster its newspapers and TV screens with scenes meant to show its powerful leaders welcoming humbled American dignitaries, said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in South Korea.
Washington has repeatedly offered to send its envoy for North Korean human rights to discuss the currently detained Americans, but Pyongyang has so far balked.
"The North Koreans are in no hurry," Lankov said. "It's a sellers' market. They say, 'This is our price: a senior visit and some concessions. These are our goods, these Americans. If you don't want to pay, that's your problem. We can wait.'"
AP writers Kim Tong-hyung and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul contributed to this story.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
WARSAW, Poland (AP) — It was an unexpected question from a woman hoping to sell me her Warsaw apartment: "Are you sure you want to buy now, when war could be coming?"
Though she was half joking, her comment revealed an anxiety Poles express frequently these days — that Russian aggression in Ukraine could spread, upending this NATO and European Union member's most peaceful and prosperous era in centuries.
The woman was the third Pole in the past couple weeks to advise me to think twice about investing in Polish real estate, forcing me to start wondering if it really is wise for me, an American, to risk my savings here.
Anxieties hang in the air as Poland marks the 75th anniversary Wednesday of the Soviet invasion of Poland at the start of World War II, one of several Russian attacks on its neighbor over the past centuries. With President Vladimir Putin showing renewed imperial inclinations, some Poles can't help but wonder if the 1939 invasion by the Red Army really was the last time Russia will make an unwanted foray here.
It's not that most Poles believe Russian troops will cross the border again; in fact, many believe Putin will probably limit his aggression to Ukraine. And there is a sense that NATO does enhance Poland's security. But now, suddenly, the long theoretical notion of war has entered people's minds as a concrete possibility.
For older Poles war isn't even a theoretical notion. They remember well atrocities inflicted by Germans and the Soviets during World War II. One of the most painful episodes of all was the Soviet killing of 22,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest, an attempt to eliminate a swath of the country's elite.
While Polish leaders have been asking NATO to do more to protect them, regular Poles ponder how far Putin will go in Ukraine. They ask: If the West doesn't put up a more forceful front, will Putin feel empowered to meddle in the Baltic states, which have sizeable ethnic Russian minorities? If so will Poland be next? And if things get really bad, will NATO be there for us?
I witnessed the emotion at a recent dinner with a Polish friend and her American husband. They clashed over whether NATO offers Poland any real protection — she accusing him of naivety for believing the alliance would go to war to protect Poland, he arguing that Poland was much safer because of NATO's Article 5 that requires members to come to the aid of any fellow member subject to attack.
Where they agreed was on their gratitude that they both held U.S. passports — allowing them to escape if the worst ever happened.
This is the tense mood that has defined the summer of 2014 in Warsaw. It's a stark contrast to the summer of 2012, when Poland and Ukraine teamed up to host the European football championships.
On match days during the tournament, my Polish partner Pawel and I would stroll among the football fans just to enjoy the upbeat vibe even though we don't care much about the sport. We kept exclaiming to each other that Poland finally felt like a normal, optimistic Western country, after so many years of struggle to overcome the devastating legacy of World War II and communism.
But since the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Pawel keeps trying to make plans for what we should do if war breaks out, talk I dismiss because the prospect of war in Poland feels impossible to me.
"Rush to the airport with the baby and get on the first plane out of Poland," he told me again this week. "After that I'll figure out how to join you."
"OK, whatever," I replied.
There have been some anecdotal cases reported in the media of Poles preparing for war by making sure passports are updated, getting some of their savings out of Polish banks and stockpiling food.
But those appear to be isolated cases. Economists say that there are no signs of a panicked sell-off of the currency or stocks.
Konrad Wierzbicki, 23, said rage toward Russia is a more appropriate emotion than fear, and that he ultimately feels that Poland now is much safer than it was on the eve of World War II.
Still, Poles should remain on alert, he argues.
"And if something happens in the Baltics and NATO doesn't react, then we know we will be alone," said Wierzbicki, who is completing a master's in psychology.
I suppose my American optimism — and my desire to get out of a rented apartment that is starting to feel too small with a baby — motivate me to keep on looking for a place to buy.
But after looking for many months, I do find myself putting less energy into the search now.
This is partly because the market seems overpriced — but also because it's hard not to be affected by the anxiety I sense all around me.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Mars, get ready for another visitor or two.
This weekend, NASA's Maven spacecraft will reach the red planet following a 10-month journey spanning 442 million miles. If all goes well, the robotic explorer will hit the brakes and slip into Martian orbit Sunday night.
"I'm all on pins and needles. This is a critical event," NASA's director of planetary science, Jim Green, said Wednesday.
Maven is not designed to land; rather, it will study Mars' upper atmosphere from orbit.
Hot on Maven's heels is India's first interplanetary spacecraft, Mangalyaan, which is due to go into orbit around Mars two days after Maven.
Scientists want to learn how Mars went from a warm, wet world that may have harbored microbial life during its first billion years, to the cold, barren place of today. Maven should help explain the atmospheric changes that led to this radical climate change.
"Where did the water go? Where did the CO2 go from that early environment?" said chief investigator Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder.
These escaping gases likely went down into the Martian crust and up into the upper atmosphere and out into space. Jakosky and his team hope to ascertain whether the climatic about-face resulted from the sun's stripping away of the early atmospheric water and carbon dioxide.
"We measure these things today even though the processes we're interested in operated billions of years ago," he said.
NASA launched Maven from Cape Canaveral last November on the $671 million mission, the first dedicated to studying the Martian upper atmosphere. As of Wednesday, the spacecraft was less than 750,000 miles from its destination; Maven's view of the red planet would be roughly equivalent to a baseball about 52 feet away.
"So Mars is really growing right now as we approach, just four days away," said David Mitchell, NASA project manager.
The boxy, solar-winged craft is as long as a school bus and as hefty as a 5,400-pound SUV.
NASA expects a scientific bonus from Maven thanks to Comet Siding Spring.
The nucleus of the comet, discovered just last year, will pass within 82,000 miles of Mars on Oct. 19. NASA initially feared the trailing comet dust might jeopardize Maven, but the risk now appears to be minimal, Jakosky said. The spacecraft will observe Siding Spring, providing it can do so safely, and analyze the Martian atmosphere before and after the comet passes by.
"I'm told the odds of having an approach that close to Mars are about 1 in 1 million years, so it's really luck that we get the opportunity here," Jakosky said.
Maven — short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution — is a scout for the human explorers whom NASA hopes to send in the decades ahead. It's NASA's 21st mission to Mars since the 1960s.
There are three spacecraft now circling Mars — one European and two U.S. — and two NASA rovers exploring the surface.
"For humans to go to Mars, it's not like 'Star Trek.' It's not like 'go where no man has gone before,' " Green told reporters. "It's really the planetary scientists that are blazing the trail for us to understand everything about Mars that we need to for humans to be able to land safely on Mars and explore and journey around the planet."
CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) — It's like Florida's version of The Blob. Slow moving glops of toxic algae in the northeast Gulf of Mexico are killing sea turtles, sharks and fish, and threatening the waters and beaches that fuel the region's economy.
Known as "red tide," this particular strain called Karenia brevis is present nearly every year off Florida, but large blooms can be particularly devastating. Right now, the algae is collecting in an area about 60 miles wide and 100 miles long, about 5 to 15 miles off St. Petersburg in the south and stretching north to Florida's Big Bend, where the peninsula ends and the Panhandle begins.
Fishermen who make a living off the state's northwest coast are reporting fish kills and reddish water.
"It boils up in the propeller wash like boiled red Georgia clay. It's spooky," said Clearwater fisherman Brad Gorst as he steered the charter fishing boat Gulfstream 2 in waters near Honeymoon Island, where dead fish recently washed ashore.
Red tide kills fish, manatees and other marine life by releasing a toxin that paralyzes their central nervous system. The algae also foul beaches and can be harmful to people who inhale the algae's toxins when winds blow onshore or by crashing waves, particularly those with asthma and other respiratory ailments.
In 2005, a strong red tide killed reefs, made beaches stinky and caused millions in economic damage. A weaker red tide in 2013 killed 276 manatees, state records show, after infecting the grasses eaten by the endangered creatures.
"This red tide ... will likely cause considerable damage to our local fisheries and our tourist economy over the next few months," said Heyward Mathews, an emeritus professor of oceanography at St. Petersburg College who has studied the issue for decades.
Despite years of study, there is nothing anyone has been able to do about it. In the 1950s, wildlife officials tried killing the red tide algae by dumping copper sulfate on it, which made the problem worse in some ways. But some researchers are working to change that.
Predicting when red tides are going to be especially bad can help fishermen and beach businesses prepare.
Right now, much of the information comes from satellite images, which are often obscured by clouds.
"In this particular red tide, we got a good image on July 23 — then we went weeks without another image," said University of South Florida ocean scientist Robert Weisberg.
Weisberg is one among a team of researchers developing a prediction model based on ocean currents data, rather than satellite images.
The prediction model tracks the currents that bring natural nutrients like phytoplankton the red tide needs to gain a foothold. Unlike other red tide species, Karenia brevis is not believed to be caused by man-made pollution such as agricultural runoff, and historical accounts of what is believed to be the same red tide date back to the 1700s.
Using his method, Weisberg in March predicted the current late summer bloom that is now causing so much worry. It allowed state officials to issue a warning July 25.
While the project recently received "rapid response" money from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to send a data-collecting robotic glider into the bloom, future funding for this work is in doubt.
Weisberg said the team is still trying to develop a model that can look further into the future.
But the tides often start far offshore, where gathering data and images can be a time-consuming, expensive undertaking. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission has tried to stem this data gap by giving fishermen sampling jars to take out to sea with them.
While a good stopgap, Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly, who represents St. Petersburg, has called for more NOAA funding to help prepare for future events.
"Using fishermen to collect samples clearly shows we have a research gap," Jolly said. "The more we learn about it, the more we can prevent a spread and protect our shoreline."
NOAA spokesman Ben Sherman said the president's 2015 budget does ask for a $6 million increase for research related to red tide forecasting, including the Gulf of Mexico, but Congress still has to approve it.
Fishermen say a better warning system could help save time and money.
"If we had more of a head's up we could plan out where we would go fish," said Mike Colby, captain of the Double Hook fishing vessel in Clearwater.
DENVER (AP) — Tired of Cheech & Chong pot jokes and ominous anti-drug campaigns, the marijuana industry and activists are starting an ad blitz in Colorado aimed at promoting moderation and the safe consumption of pot.
To get their message across, they are skewering some of the old Drug War-era ads that focused on the fears of marijuana, including the famous "This is your brain on drugs" fried-egg ad from the 1980s.
They are planning posters, brochures, billboards and magazine ads to caution consumers to use the drug responsibly and warn tourists and first-timers about the potential to get sick from accidentally eating too much medical-grade pot.
"So far, every campaign designed to educate the public about marijuana has relied on fear-mongering and insulting marijuana users," said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, the nation's biggest pot-policy advocacy group.
The MPP plans to unveil a billboard on Wednesday on a west Denver street where many pot shops are located that shows a woman slumped in a hotel room with the tagline: "Don't let a candy bar ruin your vacation."
It's an allusion to Maureen Dowd, a New York Times columnist who got sick from eating part of a pot-infused candy bar on a visit to write about pot.
The campaign is a direct response to the state's post-legalization marijuana-education efforts.
One of them is intended to prevent stoned driving and shows men zoning out while trying to play basketball, light a grill or hang a television. Many in the industry said the ads showed stereotypical stoners instead of average adults.
Even more concerning to activists is a youth-education campaign that relies on a human-sized cage and the message, "Don't Be a Lab Rat," along with warnings about pot and developing brains.
The cage in Denver has been repeatedly vandalized. At least one school district rejected the traveling exhibit, saying it was well-intentioned but inappropriate.
"To me, that's not really any different than Nancy Reagan saying 'Just Say No,'" said Tim Cullen, co-owner of four marijuana dispensaries and a critic of the "lab rat" campaign, referring to the former first lady's effort to combat drug use.
A spokesman for the state Health Department welcomed the industry's ads, and defended the "lab rat" campaign. "It's been effective in starting a conversation about potential risks to youth from marijuana," Mark Salley said.
The dueling campaigns come at a time when the industry is concerned about inexperienced consumers using edible pot. The popularity of edibles surprised some in the industry when legal-marijuana retail sales began in January.
Edible pot products have been blamed for at least one death, of a college student who jumped to his death in Denver in March after consuming six times the recommended dose of edible marijuana.
The headlines, including Dowd's experience, have been enough for the industry to promote moderation with edible pot.
"I think the word has gotten out that you need to be careful with edibles," said Steve Fox, head of the Denver-based Council for Responsible Cannabis Regulation.
The group organized the "First Time 5" campaign, which cautions that new users shouldn't eat more than 5 milligrams of marijuana's psychoactive ingredient, or half a suggested serving.
The campaign warns users that edible pot can be much more potent than the marijuana they're smoking — and that the pot-infused treats on store shelves are much stronger than homemade brownies they may recall eating.
The advocacy ads tackle anti-drug messaging from year past.
Inside pictures of old TV sets are images from historic ads. Along with the fried-egg one is an image from one ad of a father finding his son's drug stash and demanding to know who taught him to use it.
The kid answers: "You, all right! I learned it by watching you!"
The print ad concludes, "Decades of fear-mongering and condescending anti-marijuana ads have not taught us anything about the substance or made anyone safer."
It then directs viewers to consumeresposibly.org, which is patterned after the alcohol industry's "Drink Responsibly" campaign.
Marijuana activists plan to spend $75,000 by year's end and eventually expand it to Washington state, where pot is also legal.
WASHINGTON (AP) — It's incredibly unlikely that Ebola would mutate to spread through the air, and the best way to make sure it doesn't is to stop the epidemic, a top government scientist told concerned lawmakers Wednesday.
"A virus that doesn't replicate, doesn't mutate," Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee.
Fauci said U.S. researchers are monitoring for mutations in the virus, which has killed at least 2,400 people.
But considering all the dire things to worry about with this out-of-control epidemic in West Africa, that mutation concern is not "something I would put at the very top of the radar screen," said Fauci, head of NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The unprecedented Ebola outbreak is believed to have sickened nearly 5,000 people, mostly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The deadly virus also has reached Nigeria and Senegal.
Ebola is spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of sick patients. But as the epidemic has grown, so have questions about whether, if left unchecked, the virus might transform and become more contagious.
In hearings in the Senate and House on Tuesday and Wednesday, lawmakers asked Fauci if it might even become airborne.
Viruses certainly mutate all the time, making mistakes as they copy themselves in order to grow and spread, Fauci explained. Most of those mutations are irrelevant, not associated with any biological change.
But sometimes, those mutations can make a virus a little more or a little less virulent, or make it a little more or a little less efficient at spreading in whatever way it normally is transmitted, he said.
"Very, very rarely does it completely change the way it's transmitted," Fauci said.
He stressed that he's not saying it's impossible.
"People might think I'm pooh-poohing it. I'm not," Fauci said.
He said the government had funded the Broad Institute in Boston to study the virus' mutations. In a publication last month, the researchers reported a somewhat more rapid rate of mutations than expected at that point in the outbreak, but that nothing had jumped out as being of special concern so far.