South Korea arrests religious activist for making illegal trip to North Korea

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Authorities arrested a South Korean religious activist Friday as he returned home across the heavily fortified border after an illegal trip to North Korea.

U.N. Command spokesman Kim Yong-kyu said South Korean officials took the Rev. Han Sang-ryol into custody as he walked through the truce village of Panmunjom along the border separating the two Koreas.

The U.N. Command — which oversees an armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War — has jurisdiction over the southern half of the village. The command and South Korea say Han's crossing violated the armistice as well as a South Korean law barring its citizens from visiting the North without government permission.

Han, wearing a traditional white hanbok dress, shouted "National unification and peace, hooray!" just before crossing the border, according to video footage from broadcaster APTN in the North Korean capital.

He was then immediately whisked away by two officials as hundreds of North Koreans at Panmunjom waved flags and chanted "National reunification," according to APTN.

Han is a member of a small but vocal minority of South Korean activists and religious people who are sympathetic to North Korea, and was received warmly by the North.

About 700 South Korean conservative activists and North Korean defectors held a protest near the South Korean side of the border. "Punish him because he betrayed his country," the protesters chanted as they pumped their fists into the air.

Han will be charged with violating national security laws for making an illegal trip to North Korea and could face up to seven years in prison if convicted, police said.

Despite a decade of reconciliation with North Korea, Seoul maintains the tough security laws because it believes the North stills poses a threat. They prohibit South Koreans from joining pro-North Korean organizations or having unauthorized contact with the communist country. They also ban citizens from supporting or praising the North.

In 1989, Im Su-kyong, a student activist, was arrested after returning from North Korea through Panmunjom. She was sentenced to five years in prison and was paroled in 1992 and later pardoned.

During his trip, Han blamed the South Korea government for the sinking of its own warship in March and accused South Korean President Lee Myung-bak of raising tension with North Korea by discarding rapprochement accords and holding military exercises with the United States, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said.

In May, an international team of investigators found the North responsible for the ship sinking, which killed 46 South Korean sailors. North Korea denies involvement, and has issued a series of threats to South Korea over the military drills.

South Korea and the U.S. are currently holding annual military drills that North Korea has called a rehearsal for invasion. They also conducted large-scale joint naval exercises last month and plan to hold more maneuvers in the Yellow Sea early next month.

Also Friday, South Korea's Red Cross sent a message to North Korea calling for the release of a South Korean fishing boat and its crew, according to the Unification Ministry in Seoul.

The request came a day after North Korea said it had seized the boat and four South Korean and three Chinese fishermen on Aug. 8 for fishing illegally in its exclusive economic zone.


Associated Press writers Dan Y. Chung and Ye Sol Lee in Paju, South Korea, contributed to this report.