Today North Korea freed a 21-year-old New York University student it arrested last May in what it’s calling a “humanitarian” measure and what everyone else is calling a “political” move to strengthen relations with South Korea.
The country held Won Moon Joo—a South Korean national enrolled at NYU’s business school—for close to six months after arresting him for allegedly attempting to cross North Korea’s border with China.
Joo’s release came less than two weeks after he was paraded in front of the media in Pyongyang, where he reportedly read a “prepared — and probably coached — speech praising the country, its government and people.”
Despite calling his release a “humanitarian” measure, experts tell the New York Times North Korea is obviously trying to bolster relations with South Korea and probably chose to free Joo over, say, one of the country’s other South Korean prisoners, because his charges were relatively minor.
A launch would deepen an international standoff. The U.S., South Korea and their allies say North Korea’s launches are disguised tests of long-range missile technology that are banned by the United Nations. Recent commercial satellite imagery, however, showed no signs of preparations at the North’s main launch site. South Korean defense officials also have seen no indication of an imminent launch.
The launch plans earlier cast doubt over a possible easing in animosity between the Koreas. In late August they agreed to resume the reunions of families separated by the Korean War after ending a military standoff caused by a mine blast on the border that the South blamed on the North. The blast seriously injured two South Korean soldiers.
By freeing a South Korean detainee, North Korea showed it still wants better ties with South Korea and won’t likely push ahead with its rocket launch plans, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University. He said the planned reunions will likely happen later this month as earlier agreed.
Still, Joo isn’t completely in the clear. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service says it is launching an investigation to see if Joo broke any South Korean laws by trying to cross the border.