North Korea frees student arrested six months ago

Won Moon Joo has been repatriated to South Korea. Picture: Getty
Won Moon Joo has been repatriated to South Korea. Picture: Getty
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NORTH Korea has freed a South Korean national who is a student at New York University, in a possible sign it wants better ties with rival Seoul and may back away from a recent threat to launch a long-range rocket later this month.

North Korean state media said it “deported” Won Moon Joo, 21, at the border village of Panmunjom as a “humanitarian” measure about six months after he had been arrested for crossing the Chinese border into North Korea.

South Korean officials confirmed Joo’s repatriation. The National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s main spy agency, said it will investigate whether Mr Joo violated the country’s anti-North Korean security law, which prohibits unapproved travel to the North.

Mr Joo has permanent residency status in the US. The exact motivation for his travel to North Korea is not clear.

North Korea often uses detainees in attempts to win political concessions and aid from rivals Seoul and Washington and a South Korean analyst said it may have calculated that since Mr Joo’s alleged crime was relatively minor, his release might boost the impoverished, authoritarian country’s international image and lead to more investment and tourism.

Ten days ago, Mr Joo was presented to the media in the capital Pyongyang and said he had not been able to contact his family but wanted them to know he was healthy.

For most of the 30-minute appearance, he read a prepared – and probably coached – speech praising the country, its government and people. Other foreigners who have been detained in North Korea have said after their release that they were coached closely on what to say in such statements.

Mr Joo is one of four South Koreans known to be held in North Korea. The other three are accused of more serious espionage acts or attempts to establish underground Christian churches in the country.

The release comes amid speculation that North Korea may not go ahead with an earlier threat to launch what it calls a satellite aboard a long-range rocket to mark this week’s 70th birthday of its ruling party.

A launch would deepen an international standoff. The US, South Korea and their allies said North Korea’s launches are disguised tests of long-range missile technology that are banned by the United Nations.

Recent commercial satellite imagery, however, showed no signs of preparations at the North’s main launch site. South Korean defence officials also have seen no indication of an imminent launch.

The launch plans earlier cast doubt over a possible easing in animosity between South and North Korea.

In late August they agreed to resume the reunions of families separated by the Korean War after ending a military stand-off caused by a mine blast on the border that the South blamed on the North.