A special train carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong Il crosses the Amrok… (Yonhap / EPA )
Reporting from Beijing — North Korea said Friday that it was preparing to release an Orange County man who has been held since November, a concession to Washington that might be aimed a securing food aid.
Jun Young-su, a businessman, had reportedly been charged with Christian missionary activity, which is illegal in the staunchly Communist country. The official KCNA news service reported Friday that the country "decided to release Jun Young-su on humanitarian grounds." The brief dispatch did not specify when he would be allowed to return home.
A succession of visiting U.S. delegates has pressed for Jun's release, most recently Robert King, the U.S. envoy for North Korean human rights, who has been touring the country this week to assess North Korea's claims that it is in dire need of food assistance. King is due to leave North Korea on Saturday, raising the possibility that he will escort Jun out of the country.
Former President Jimmy Carter had hoped to bring out Jun during a visit to North Korea but was rejected. In its statement, KCNA mentioned Carter's appeal to release Jun as well as similar pleas from the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham.
Jun is reportedly about 60 years old and a naturalized U.S. citizen who had been working legally inside North Korea at the time he was detained -- unlike American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were arrested for illegal border crossing in 2009 and released after intercession by former President Bill Clinton.
North Korea claims to be desperately short of food this year. Leader Kim Jong Il on Thursday wrapped up a visit to China in which he reportedly interceded with President Hu Jintao for economic and humanitarian assistance.