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August 14, 2009

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Pyongyang frees South Korean in rare move

NORTH Korea yesterday released a South Korean worker held for nearly five months accused of insulting its leaders in rare conciliatory gesture likely to ease tension between the rival states.

The release could also lead to restored business ties with South Korea's giant Hyundai Group and calm investors worried about troubles spinning out of control.

"I am happy to be back safely," Yoo Seong-jin said in a brief statement on the south side of the border. "I gratefully appreciate all the efforts and concerns of the government, Hyundai Asan and (Korean) people."

He declined to give further details about his detention.

Hyundai Asan is a Hyundai affiliate which helps run a joint factory park in North Korea where Yoo was detained.

He had been held since late March at the factory enclave in the North Korean border city of Kaesong where South Korean firms use cheap North Korean labor and land to make goods.

Yoo's release comes after former United States President Bill Clinton last week visited North Korea where he met leader Kim Jong-Il and won the freedom of two US journalists held since March for illegal entry.

Hyundai Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun arrived in Pyongyang on Monday to seek Yoo's release and the resumption of tourism to the Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea.

Hyundai has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the resort, whose operations were suspended a year ago, and the factory enclave, the last major economic project between the two countries.

"Our government will continue with a consistent North Korean policy," a South Korean presidential Blue House official said. "Although it is a bit late, it is a good thing that Mr Yoo is able to return to his family."

Analysts have been eying a possible meeting between North Korea leader Kim and the Hyundai boss, saying it could signal North Korea's intention to defrost ties with South Korea.

Hyun, one of the few South Korean executives to hold direct discussions with Kim, extended her planned visit likely in order to arrange another meeting with Kim.


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