SEOUL - North Korea Monday released a New York University student who had been detained for five months after illegally entering the country.
Joo Won-moon, 21 is a South Korean citizen but has permanent residency status in the United States, where he has been living since 2001. He was apprehended on April 22 after he crossed into North Korea from the Chinese border town Dandong.
In a written statement Monday, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said, “Under the name of North Korea Red Cross Central Committee, North Korea sent a letter today to inform that they will repatriate our citizen, Mr. Joo Won-moon.”
Released at DMZ
Joo was released to South Korean custody at the heavily fortified Panmunjom inter-Korean border crossing inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) late Monday.
Prior to his arrest in North Korea, Joo was living in New Jersey and studying at New York University, but he had taken a semester off to travel.
In May, during an interview with American news broadcaster CNN, Joo said he wanted to be arrested in North Korea and thought it would somehow lead to better inter-Korean relations.
In September, Joo was allowed to speak to the media and in a statement that appeared to be coached by North Korean officials, he expressed praise for the North Korean government and its people.
Choi Yong-sang, an activist with the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights in Seoul, said Joo’s release may be part of a diplomatic effort to convince the United States to engage with Pyongyang to ease economic sanctions.
“His permanent residency in the United States might have played a small but significant role as North Korea has been continuously requesting the U.S. for talks or normalization,” Choi said.
He said there are also signs that North Korea may have decided to halt the launch of a satellite next week on the 70th anniversary of its ruling party to improve relations with China.
And Joo's release comes ahead of a scheduled reunion later this month of families separated by the 1950-53 civil war that ended in an uneasy truce between the communist North and democratic South.
Seoul Monday also pressed for the release of three other South Korean citizens that are being held in the North.
Pyongyang has accused missionary Kim Jung-wook of anti-North Korean religious acts, and missionary Kim Kook-ki and businessman Choi Chun-gil of spying for South Korea.
All three were sentenced to hard labor for life. All three confessed and apologized for their crimes, although it is not clear if their confessions were made under duress.
Seoul has denied the charges and criticized Pyongyang for sentencing them without a fair trial and access to legal counsel.
Choi said unlike Joo, who is considered an innocent but naïve student, Pyongyang believes the other detainees were involved in crimes against the state.
“The one South Korean being held in North Korea is because of his religious work, and other two have been arrested as they worked as a spy, which is unforgivable and unacceptable crime in North Korea,” he said.
North Korea is considered to be one of the most secretive and repressive regimes in the world and has been accused in the past of arresting foreign nationals for politically motivated reasons and forcing false confessions.
Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.