North Korea frees detained American man

BEIJING, CHINA — North Korea freed an American held for a half year for reportedly proselytizing, handing him Saturday to a U.S. envoy who said Washington had not promised to provide aid in exchange for the man’s release.

The envoy, Robert King, accompanied Eddie Jun on a flight from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, and told reporters after arriving in Beijing that Jun would return to the United States to be reunited with his family “within a day or two.” Jun did not appear with King before reporters.

Jun, a Korean-American who travelled to North Korea several times and had business interests there, was arrested in November, with the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, saying he was accused of committing a serious crime. Pyongyang didn’t provide details about the alleged crime, but South Korean press reports say Jun was accused of spreading Christianity.

King, the U.S. envoy for North Korean human rights, travelled to Pyongyang with a team of specialists earlier in the week to assess the severity of the latest of North Korea’s chronic food shortages. He said he spent three and a half days in talks with North Korean Foreign Ministry officials. He did not specify how much time was spent discussing Jun but tried to quash any speculation that the U.S. offered aid to obtain his freedom.

“We did not negotiate or agree to any provision of food assistance,” King told reporters. He said he would report back to Washington.

KCNA announced Friday that North Korea would release Jun after King “expressed regret at the incident on behalf of the U.S. government and assured that it would make all its efforts to prevent the recurrence of similar incident.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner welcomed Jun’s release. He said the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which represents U.S. interests in the country, had confirmed the North was going to free the American. He said Jun was in decent health.

Toner said King had raised Jun’s case in discussions with North Korean officials, and visited the American on Thursday. The spokesman said he did not have details on the talks and so could not comment on whether King had expressed regret to North Korea.

“We welcome their decision. It’s certainly a positive step,” Toner told a news conference.

He said it would have no bearing on the U.S. decision on whether to provide food aid and on restarting dialogue with the North. On engaging the North, Toner said the U.S. was still looking for “concrete actions” in other areas and an improvement in the North’s relations with South Korea.

The United States, which fought on South Korea’s side during the 1950-53 Korean War, doesn’t have diplomatic staff based inside North Korea.

The North said that former president Jimmy Carter also asked for Jun’s pardon during a recent visit.

In recent years, North Korea has detained several Americans, one of them for trying to proselytize, and they were often freed only after high-profile negotiations.

North Korea officially guarantees freedom of religion, but authorities often crack down on Christians, who are seen as a Western-influenced threat to the government. The distribution of Bibles and secret prayer services can mean banishment to a labour camp or execution, defectors from the country have said.

The news on Jun came on the same day Kim Jong Il returned home from a week-long trip to China. Kim’s visit there, his third in just over a year, was seen by many as an attempt to secure aid, investment and support for his dynastic transfer of power to his youngest son, Kim Jong Un.

Kim Jong Il, in a thank-you letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao, said the China-North Korea friendship, “sealed in blood and handed down by the elder generations of the two countries, will develop steadily through generations in the common interests and wishes of the two peoples,” according to the North’s state media.

North Korea is thought by many to be in dire need of outside help, and China is its only major ally. The North has antagonized many through its pursuit of nuclear weapons. It pulled out of international six-nation talks aimed at ridding it of nuclear programs more than two years ago.

Beijing supports a resumption of the negotiations, but South Korea and the United States demand that North Korea first exhibit sincerity toward disarmament.

North Korea’s population also faces chronic hunger.

The U.N. World Food Program launched a $200 million dollar international appeal late last month after it concluded that more than six million of North Korea’s 23 million people were in urgent need of aid. It said the North’s public distribution system would run out of food between May and July.

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