October 5, 2015 / 4:12 AM / in 2 years

North Korea frees South Korean student held since April

Joo Won-moon (C), a South Korean citizen who has permanent residency in the United States, speaks to media under portraits of North Korea's former leaders Kim Jong Il (top R) and Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 25, 2015. REUTERS/Kyodo

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea repatriated a South Korean college student who holds a U.S. green card on Monday, six months after capturing him crossing into the country from China, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said.

The release of Joo Won-moon, who had been a student at New York University, came days before the North celebrates the 70th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party on Saturday.

A unification ministry official said Joo was handed over at the Panmunjom truce village along the heavily militarised border at around 5:30 p.m. Seoul time (0830 GMT). South Korean authorities will question him on his stay in the North, the official said.

Joo was caught in April crossing from the Chinese side of the Yalu River, North Korea’s official KCNA news agency has said. Joo had admitted violating North Korean law but said he had been treated well by the North, KCNA said recently.

Joo, who according to KCNA last month was 21 years old, has appeared on North Korean media and said he was in good health.

North Korea holds three other South Koreans and also a Korean-Canadian pastor, who was detained in February and according to North Korean state media confessed to crimes aimed at overthrowing the state.

South Korea welcomed the release of Joo and urged the North to free its other three nationals.

North Korea’s highest court in June sentenced two of the South Koreans, who were accused of spying, to hard labour for life, calling the punishment a lesson for those who conspire with Washington and Seoul.

North and South Korea agreed in August to improve ties, after a standoff that threatened to become a armed conflict. Later this month, families separated by the 1950-1953 Korean war will meet for a reunion, the 20th such event.

Reporting by Ju-min Park; Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Tony Munroe and Simon Cameron-Moore

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