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(2nd LD) N. Korea says it will release U.S. missionary

All Headlines 16:07 February 05, 2010

(ATTN: RECASTS lead; ADDS analysts' comments throughout; RESTRUCTURES; ADDS background)

SEOUL, Feb. 5 (Yonhap) -- North Korea said Friday it will free an American missionary who walked into the communist state in December with the goal of drawing attention to its human rights record, a move analysts say aimed at hastening a thaw in its frozen relations with the U.S.

Robert Park, a 28-year-old Christian missionary from Tucson, Arizona, entered the North across the frozen Tumen river on the border with China in late December to urge North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to free all political prisoners and improve human rights.

The official Korean Central News Agency, in its English language service, said Pyongyang has "decided to leniently forgive and release him, taking his admission and sincere repentance of his wrong doings into consideration." It did not elaborate when the Korean-American will be released.

Analysts here noted the North Korean move comes as the country is insisting on its demand that U.N. sanctions on it be eased before it rejoins six-nation talks on its nuclear arms programs.

North Korea also says the U.S. must agree to start separate talks on formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce, to remove what it calls U.S. hostilities against it.

"The release is a message that North Korea wants the U.S. to be more generous in dealing with its demands," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. Yang added the North Korean announcement suggests that low-key dialogue may be underway between the two countries.

The U.S. has been contacting the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang to inquire after Park as Washington does not have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

Ryoo Khil-jae, a professor at the same institute, agreed the move helps foster a mood for the sides to have dialogue on resuming the six-nation aid-for-denuclearization talks.

"The North appears to have concluded that its detainment of Park only complicates efforts for such dialogue," he said.

The talks, which include the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan, have not been held since December 2008.

The announcement for the release comes 42 days after Park was detained after crossing into North Korean territory from China. In August last year, two American journalists were freed after over four months of detention. The reporters, who had accidentally crossed into the North while reporting on human trafficking, were brought home after former U.S. President Bill Clinton met with North Korean leader Kim in Pyongyang.

The meeting generated momentum for dialogue on the Korean Peninsula after North Korea raised tension by conducting its second nuclear test in May and declared the six-nation talks "dead."

In December, U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy on North Korea visited Pyongyang to call on the country to return to the talks. He said the sides reached a common understanding on the need to resume the talks.

In a separate dispatch, the KCNA quoted Park as saying in an interview that he had a "wrong understanding" of human rights conditions in the North because of "the false propaganda made by the West to tarnish its image."

"I would not have committed such a crime if I had known that the DPRK respects the rights of all the people and guarantees their freedom and they enjoy a happy and stable life," Park was quoted as saying.

The KCNA made no mention of another American that it had said remains under detention after illegally trespassing across the border between China and North Korea on January 25. The North and the U.S. have yet to identify the man or mention why he entered the country.

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