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North Korea frees South Korean worker after official's visit

The chairwoman of Hyundai Group went to Pyongyang to seek the man's release after President Clinton's successful trip gained the freedom of two U.S. TV reporters.

August 14, 2009|Ju-min Park and John M. Glionna | Park is in The Times' Seoul Bureau.

SEOUL — A 44-year-old South Korean worker held in North Korea since March was released Thursday during a visit to Pyongyang by a prominent South Korean corporate leader, authorities said.

The release came a week after former President Clinton traveled to the North Korean capital and secured pardons for two American television reporters who had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for illegally entering the country.

Chairwoman Hyun Jung-eun of Hyundai Group flew to Pyongyang on Monday to negotiate the release of her employee, a technician at a northern industrial complex jointly run by North and South Korea. He was taken into custody after allegedly denouncing the North and trying to persuade a North Korean to defect.

Analysts said the freeing of the Americans and South Korean worker Yoo Seung-jin might lead to more open communication with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

They also noted that officials in Seoul felt immense pressure to secure the release of the South Korean after Clinton's successful trip.

Koh Yu-hwan, a Dongguk University professor of North Korean studies, said, "It seemed ironic that North Korea freed Americans but not this man from its brother nation."

News of the release came just hours after 100 demonstrators in Seoul burned a North Korean flag, demanding freedom for the worker.

North Korea is still holding four South Korean fishermen whose boat was seized last month after it strayed into northern waters. Their whereabouts are unknown.

Hyun was scheduled to visit Pyongyang for three days but extended her stay by 48 hours.

Lee Jong-joo, a spokeswoman for South Korea's Unification Ministry, said it was unclear whether Hyun would meet with Kim to discuss the fishermen's release and the future of the joint industrial park.

"Thanks to the release of the two journalists, there was a possibility for the South Korean detainee to be freed," said Koh, the professor.

"And we can anticipate developments in South-North Korea relations."

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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