(ATTN: UPDATES with analyst's comment in 8th para and background in 9th para; CHANGES headline)
SEOUL, May 27 (Yonhap) -- North Korea said Friday it will release a detained Korean-American missionary in the latest conciliatory gesture toward Washington amid possible food aid from the United States.
The American, identified as Jun Young-su, had faced indictment after being arrested in November last year for committing a crime against the North.
Jun admitted his crime, but the North decided to free him by taking into account pleas by high-profile Americans who recently visited Pyongyang, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said.
The U.S. government has also repeatedly called on the North to free Jun, who informed sources have claimed was accused of getting involved in unauthorized religious activities.
North Korea "decided to release Jun Young-su on humanitarian grounds," the KCNA said, without elaborating on such details as when he will be allowed to return home.
The North's move came after Robert King, the U.S. envoy for North Korean human rights, expressed regret over Jun's alleged crime and vowed to ensure that similar incidents don't happen again, according to the KCNA.
King arrived in the North earlier this week to assess the North's food situation, a possible indication of the resumption of U.S. food aid to the North.
Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University in Seoul, said the North's overture appears to be aimed at winning U.S. food assistance, noting the release will help facilitate the aid.
Washington suspended its food aid to the North in March 2009 amid heightened tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests and controversy over the transparency of food distribution.
In March, the U.N. food agency appealed for 430,000 tons of food aid to feed 6 million vulnerable North Korean people, a quarter of the country's population.
North Korea provided consular access to Jun through the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang and allowed him to communicate with his family members through phone and letters, the KCNA said. The embassy serves as a protecting power for the U.S. as Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic relations.
North Korea also said it treated Jun in a hospital for an unspecified health problem, according to the KCNA.
North Korea claims it guarantees religious freedom, but in practice it severely cracks down on any religious activity, viewing it as a challenge to leader Kim Jong-il's rule.
Kim is the subject of a massive cult of personality along with his late father, the country's founder Kim Il-sung.
Last year, North Korea released Robert Park, a Korean-American Christian activist who crossed into the North to draw international attention to the North's poor human rights record, after months of detention.
In 2009, former U.S. President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to win the release of two American journalists caught during a reporting tour covering North Korean defectors.
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