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S. Korea Asks China to Release Former Soldier - 2003-11-25

The South Korean government has asked Beijing to allow a former South Korean soldier to leave China, where he fled after escaping North Korea. The man is believed to have been a prisoner of war in North Korea for half a century.

China has confirmed that it is holding 72-year-old Jeon Yong-il in custody. Police arrested him and his wife on November 13th as they tried to board a plane out of China using fake South Korean passports. Mr. Jeon and his wife had sneaked across the border from North Korea earlier this year. As do hundreds of North Korean refugees each year, the couple hoped to transit through China to get to South Korea.

The Jeon case sparked anger in South Korea when media reported that the couple had earlier sought help from the South's embassy in Beijing but had been turned away.

South Korean diplomats in Beijing now say they have petitioned the Chinese government to release the couple and grant them transit visas so they can go on to South Korea. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said authorities are still deciding what to do about the couple.

Chinese police are still verifying these people's identities. Our judicial authorities will deal with this case according to applicable laws. Here, I assure you that their safety is guaranteed.

Mr. Jeon was fighting for the South in 1953 when the communist forces of the North captured him.

South Korean officials say they had until recently counted him among the dead. They say photos and other evidence have since convinced them that he was among an estimated 300 South Korean prisoners of war still unaccounted for - more than 50 years after hostilities ended.

Observers in South Korea are hopeful that China will depart from its normal policy of returning illegal border crossers to North Korea.

The question is a touchy one for Beijing, which does not want to anger Pyongyang while Chinese diplomats are working to get the North to resume multi-party talks on ending the North Korean nuclear crisis. The year-old crisis began when the United States revealed that Pyongyang had admitted having a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of international accords.