North Korea on Friday paraded a defector accused of involvement in a child abduction plot it says was masterminded by South Korean agents, as Seoul demanded the man's immediate release.
In a carefully stage-managed press conference in Pyongyang, Ko Hyon-Chol, 53, who fled the North in 2013 and was granted South Korean citizenship, "confessed" to attempting to kidnap two orphans and take them to the South.
"I committed the unpardonable crime of being involved in attempted child abduction," a weeping Ko said at the event in the People's Palace of Culture in central Pyongyang.
In a 30-minute statement during which he frequently wept and referred to himself as a "traitor of the fatherland", he detailed his defection, recruitment by the South's spy agency and his "criminal acts". Such choreographed and apparently scripted public confessions are standard practice for foreign or North Korean nationals arrested for subversive activity.
Ko said his South Korean handlers told him in May to arrange the kidnapping of orphans from North Korea, promising him $10,000 for each child. Eventually he selected two targets, two girls, aged eight and nine, who were in an orphanage. He crossed the river from China into North Korea with his inflatable boat -- which he planned to use to ferry back the girls -- just after midnight on May 27, but was arrested hours later.
Ko originally fled in January 2013 because he had been involved in smuggling and was being investigated by Pyongyang authorities. He lived in China for about a year before arriving in the South in 2014 via Laos and Thailand.
He said he had struggled to adjust to life in South Korea and had been unable to find a job, so sought out a defectors' organisation through which he was introduced to NIS agents in December 2015.
Seoul responded abruptly, demanding North Korea "release our citizens including Ko Hyon-Chol and immediately repatriate them," the South's unification ministry said in a statement Friday. It warned Pyongyang to stop "illegally arresting" its citizens and using them for a "war of propaganda".
North Korea is currently holding at least four South Korean detainees who have been arrested since 2013, including Ko.
Source: Agence France-Presse