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North Korea has agreed to free a South Korean man it has held since March, say South Korean officials, indicating a possible warming of relations between the two Koreas for the first time in more than a year.
Agence France-Presse reports that Chun Hae-Sung, a spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry, told reporters that North Korea had agreed to release Yu Seong-jin, a Hyundai engineer who had been held in North Korea.
The release of Mr. Yu was the first conciliatory gesture to the South from the North since ties soured after Seoul's current conservative government took office in February 2008.
Yu had been detained in North Korea's Kaesong industrial zone, where South Korean companies employee North Korean workers, since March after he was accused of insulting North Korea's government and urging a North Korean worker to defect. Yu's release comes after Hyundai Group chairwoman Hyun Jung-Eun traveled to Pyongyang Monday to discuss his release, and a week after former US President Bill Clinton met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to secure the release of two American journalists who were also detained in March. (Read The Christian Science Monitor's report on Mr. Clinton's trip here.)
Reuters writes that experts look to Ms. Hyun's visit, which also addressed Hyundai's business with the North, as a gauge of a possible warming of relations between North and South Korea. When South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office last year, he ended his predecessors' "sunshine policy" of unconditional aid to the North, and has been more vocal in criticizing Pyongyang.
"North Korea is hoping for a monetary link that could mean more cooperation in the Kaesong complex, restarting tourism at the Kumgang resort or stopping South Korea's anti-North movement," said Cho Myung-chul, an expert on the North's economy at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy....
Repairing ties with Hyundai would bolster the North's coffers, hit by U.N. sanctions for its nuclear tests as well as a cut in aid from the South, which once sent annual handouts worth about 5 percent of the North's economy.
North Korea's battered economy is just two percent of the size of the South. U.N. sanctions are aimed at halting its exports of missiles and arms, the few items it can sell abroad to earn hard currency.
The Korea Times reports that President Lee's Grand National Party is signalling a "softer stance" against the North. "The government needs to map out measures to enhance inter-Korean relations when [Hyun] returns" to South Korea, a government spokesman said recently.
Yonhap News writes that Yu's detention, as well as the ongoing detention of four South Korean fisherman whose boat was seized near the Korean maritime border, has been a source of "despair and outrage" in South Korea, especially after Clinton's success in freeing the two American journalists.
The prolonged captivity has enraged both ruling and opposition parties, particularly with Yu's detention contrasting with the American women who were allowed phone calls to their family and diplomatic access....
"We cannot know why they don't even allow access to their fellow Koreans, and I feel humiliated by this discriminatory treatment by North Korea," Rep. Kim Jung-hoon of the ruling Grand National Party said in a senior members meeting.
Rep. Lee Kang-rae of the main opposition Democratic Party, which has been more sympathetic toward the North, said, "North Korea calls for the 'by-our-nation-itself' spirit, but disappointingly, in reality, it discriminates against South Korea compared to the United States."