SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said Friday it will free an American detained for reportedly proselytizing after a visiting U.S. official expressed regret.
Eddie Jun was arrested in November and accused of committing a serious crime against North Korea, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said. Pyongyang didn't provide details about the alleged crime, but South Korean press reports say Jun, a Korean-American with business interests in North Korea, was accused of spreading Christianity.
Robert King, the U.S. envoy for North Korean human rights who is visiting the country this week, "expressed regret at the incident on behalf of the U.S. government and assured that it would make all its efforts to prevent the recurrence of similar incident," North Korea's news agency said.
King is leading an American delegation trying to verify food supply surveys by the United Nations and U.S.-based charities and see if there are ways to monitor aid distribution.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner welcomed Jun's release. He said the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which represents U.S. interests in the country, had confirmed the North was going to free the American. He said Jun was in decent health but did not have details on the American's exact whereabouts Friday and when he would leave the country.
Toner said King had raised Jun's case in discussions with North Korean officials, and visited the American on Thursday. The spokesman said he did not have details on the talks and so could not comment on whether King had expressed regret to North Korea.
"We welcome their decision. It's certainly a positive step," Toner told a news conference.
He said it would have no bearing on the U.S. decision on whether to provide food aid and on restarting dialogue with the North. On engaging the North, Toner said the U.S. was still looking for "concrete actions" in other areas and an improvement in the North's relations with South Korea.
The United States, which fought on South Korea's side during the 1950-53 Korean War, doesn't have diplomatic staff based inside North Korea.
The North said that former President Jimmy Carter also asked for Jun's pardon during a recent visit.
Several Americans have been detained in North Korea in recent years, and they were often freed only after high-profile negotiations.
During another visit in August, Carter brought home a man sentenced to eight years' hard labor for crossing into the country from China. Korean-American missionary Robert Park walked into North Korea on Christmas Day 2009 to draw attention to the North's alleged human rights abuses and to call for the resignation of leader Kim Jong Il.
Americans Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested in 2009 for alleged trespassing. North Korea released them after Former President Bill Clinton made a trip to Pyongyang to ask for their freedom.
North Korea officially guarantees freedom of religion, but authorities often crack down on Christians, who are seen as a Western-influenced threat to the government. The distribution of Bibles and secret prayer services can mean banishment to a labor camp or execution, defectors from the country have said.
The news on Jun came on the same day Kim Jong Il returned home from a weeklong trip to China. Kim's visit there, his third in just over a year, was seen by many as an attempt to secure aid, investment and support for his dynastic transfer of power to his youngest son, Kim Jong Un.
Kim Jong Il, in a thank-you letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao, said the China-North Korea friendship, "sealed in blood and handed down by the elder generations of the two countries, will develop steadily through generations in the common interests and wishes of the two peoples," according to the North's state media.
North Korea is thought by many to be in dire need of outside help, and China is its only major ally. The North has antagonized many through its pursuit of nuclear weapons. It pulled out of international six-nation talks aimed at ridding it of nuclear programs more than two years ago.
Beijing supports a resumption of the negotiations, but South Korea and the United States demand that North Korea first exhibit sincerity toward disarmament.
North Korea's population also faces chronic hunger.
The U.N. World Food Program launched a $200 million dollar international appeal late last month after it concluded that more than 6 million of North Korea's 23 million people were in urgent need of aid. It said the North's public distribution system would run out of food between May and July.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.
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