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US Journalist Release Renews Attention on S. Korean Detainees

  • Kurt Achin

This week's release of two captive U.S. journalists by North Korea is being welcomed around the world, including in South Korea. The release also is renewing Seoul's focus on freeing its own citizens held in the North.

About the same time U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were captured by North Korean soldiers along the Chinese border in late March, a South Korean executive was taken into North Korean custody.

He is known publicly only by his last name, Yu, and he helped administer a joint industrial venture in the North Korean city of Kaesong. He is accused of making inflammatory comments about the North Korean political system, and attempting to persuade a North Korean female worker in the zone to defect. Kaesong executives say alcohol may have been a factor.

Pyongyang has not allowed Yu any access to South Korean officials or legal counsel for more than four months. As Ling and Lee celebrate Wednesday's release with their families in the United States, South Korean officials are still working hard on Yu's case.

Chun Hae-sung, a spokesman with the Unification Ministry in Seoul, says the government is doing everything it can to win the release of Yu, as well as four crew members of a fishing boat that crossed into North Korean waters last month. However, he says Seoul is not thinking of sending a special envoy the way Washington did with former President Bill Clinton.

Mr. Clinton flew to Pyongyang on Tuesday on what was billed as a private humanitarian mission to secure the release of the two journalists, who had been sentenced to 12 years hard labor. On Wednesday, he returned home with the women.

Moon Tae-young, a spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry, says Mr. Clinton did use his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to advocate for the release of the South Koreans.

He says Mr. Clinton urged the North to release the detainees on humanitarian grounds. Moon adds he expects "immediate progress" on securing their freedom.

The very emotional homecoming of Ling and Lee is raising the profile of the South Korean detentions. Lee Kang-rae is a senior official in South Korea's opposition Democratic Party, which is typically softer in its criticism of the North than the ruling conservatives. Still, he says the North's refusal to free the South's citizens creates bad will.

He says his party is "disappointed" with North Korea for discriminating between the South and the United States. He says a consensus is building in the South that there is something wrong with North Korea's attitude.

In addition to the five South Korean detainees dominating the headlines, South Korea believes the North has kept about 400 of its citizens since the Korean War was halted in 1953. About half of those are prisoners of war. The others are believed to have been abducted by North Korean agents. Pyongyang denies any abductions.

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