North Korea on Monday freed a South Korean national who is a student at New York University, in a possible sign it wants better ties with rival Seoul and may back away from a recent threat to launch a long-range rocket later this month.
North Korean state media said it “deported” Won Moon Joo, 21, at the border village of Panmunjom as a “humanitarian” measure about six months after he had been arrested for crossing the Chinese border into North Korea. It didn’t elaborate.
South Korean officials confirmed Joo’s repatriation. The National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s main spy agency, said it will investigate whether Joo violated the country’s anti-North Korean security law, which prohibits unapproved travel to the North.
Joo has permanent residency status in the United States. The exact motivation for his travel to North Korea wasn’t clear.
Ten days ago, Joo was presented to the media in Pyongyang and said he had not been able to contact his family but wanted them to know he was healthy. For most of the 30-minute appearance, he read a prepared — and probably coached — speech praising the country, its government and people. Other foreigners who have been detained in North Korea have said after their release that they were coached closely on what to say in such statements.
Joo is one of four South Koreans known to be held in North Korea. The other three are accused of more serious espionage acts or attempts to establish underground Christian churches in the country.
The release comes amid speculation that North Korea may not go ahead with an earlier threat to launch what it calls a satellite aboard a long-range rocket to mark this week’s 70th birthday of its ruling party.