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North Korea frees American detained for half year

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Robert King, the U.S. envoy for North Korean human rights issues, speaks to journalists upon arrival at Beijing Capital Airport in Beijing, China Saturday, May 28, 2011. Robert King, the U.S. envoy for North Korean human rights issues, speaks to journalists upon arrival at Beijing Capital Airport in Beijing, China Saturday, May 28, 2011.

BEIJING (AP) — North Korea freed an American held for a half year for reportedly proselytizing, handing him Saturday to a U.S. envoy who said Washington had not promised to provide aid in exchange for the man's release.

The envoy, Robert King, accompanied Eddie Jun on a flight from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, and told reporters after arriving in Beijing that Jun would return to the United States to be reunited with his family "within a day or two."

Jun did not appear with King before reporters in Beijing. Jun, dressed in a dark windbreaker, appeared in good spirits, smiling with King as they boarded the plane in Pyongyang, according to footage from Associated Press Television News.

Jun, a Korean-American from California who traveled to North Korea several times and had business interests there, was arrested in November, with the North's official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, saying he was accused of committing a serious crime. Pyongyang didn't provide details about the alleged crime, but South Korean press reports say Jun was accused of spreading Christianity.

King, the U.S. envoy for North Korean human rights, traveled to Pyongyang with a team of specialists earlier in the week to assess the severity of the latest of North Korea's chronic food shortages. He said he spent 3 1/2 days in talks with North Korean Foreign Ministry officials. He did not specify how much time was spent discussing Jun but tried to quash any speculation that the U.S. had offered aid to obtain his freedom.

"We did not negotiate or agree to any provision of food assistance," King told reporters. He said he would report back to Washington.

KCNA announced Friday that North Korea would release Jun after King "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."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Friday that he did not have details on the talks and could not confirm whether King had expressed regret. He said Jun was in decent health, with King having visited him Thursday.

"We welcome their decision. It's certainly a positive step," Toner told a news conference.

Toner said the release would have no bearing on the U.S. decision on whether to provide food aid and on restarting dialogue with the North. On engaging North Korea, 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 in North Korea. Negotiations on establishing relations have gotten snagged amid North Korea's efforts to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and its provocations toward South Korea.

In recent years, North Korea has detained several Americans, one of them for trying to proselytize, and they were often freed only after high-profile negotiations. North Korea has said that former President Jimmy Carter asked for Jun's pardon during a visit last month.

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 North Korean leader 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.

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