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South Korean corporate leader goes to North seeking freedom for five captives

Hyun Jung-eun, chairwoman of Hyundai Asan, hopes to win the release of a Hyundai employee and four fishermen held by Kim Jong Il's regime.

August 11, 2009|John M. Glionna

SEOUL — First, there was Bill Clinton. Next: Hyun Jung-eun.

Seeking to capitalize on the former president's successful mission last week that won the release of two American TV journalists, the chairwoman of Hyundai Asan left Monday for a three-day visit to North Korea.

The corporate chief's mission: convince North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to release five South Koreans being held without fanfare by his secretive regime.

A South Korean employee of a joint industrial complex run by North and South Korea just above the demilitarized zone has been held for months -- with much less publicity than the two U.S. television reporters released last week after a pardon.

The Hyundai worker in custody was joined last month by four South Korean fishermen whose boat was seized after they accidentally wandered into North Korean waters.

As she addressed reporters Monday before entering North Korea, Hyun said she would try to secure the employee's release. Hyun will also try to kick-start several stalled business ventures between the North and South, officials said.

In recent years, Hyundai has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in numerous joint projects in North Korea. They include several tourism ventures and the Kaesong industrial park, where a South Korean firm provides the management and investment capital while North Korean workers provide the labor.

Pyongyang blocked tourism from the South last year amid tensions that followed the election of conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

Productivity at the industrial park also slumped, a move that was followed in March when Kim's regime detained a South Korean manager for reportedly denouncing the political system.

Pyongyang has also claimed that the worker tried to convince a North Korean worker to defect.

North Korea has not allowed Seoul officials to contact the detained worker, unlike in the case of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee and the U.S. government.

It was unclear Monday whether Hyun had plans to meet with Kim as she leads a delegation of company executives to meet with North Korean officials. Late in the day, Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency issued a release saying that Hyun had arrived in the capital.

A Hyundai official told the JoongAng newspaper in Seoul that the release of the worker would have a "positive impact" on the fate of the four fishermen.

Ling and Lee were arrested in March and charged with illegally crossing into North Korea. They returned home last week to an emotional welcome from family and friends after Clinton's trip to Pyongyang.

Over the weekend, North Korean officials attributed the success of the hand-over of the two Americans to the dictator's son, Kim Jong Un, who many think is being groomed for power.

"Thanks to Commander Kim Jong Un's cleverness, former U.S. President Clinton crossed the Pacific Ocean to apologize" to the older Kim, Pyongyang's secret police agency was quoted as saying by South Korea's Yonhap news service.

"All of this came though with Commander Kim Jong Un's exceptional foresight and outstanding tactics," the group said.

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john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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