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Monday, February 22, 1999 Published at 04:01 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Seoul frees long-term prisoners

The amnesty marks President Kim Dae-Jung's first year in power

South Korea's cabinet has approved the release of the man considered to be the world's longest-serving political prisoner.

Woo Yong-Gak, who is 71, was jailed in 1958 on charges of spying for North Korea.

He has spent most of the succeeding 41 years in solitary confinement and is thought to be in poor health.

The South Korean news agency Yonhap said he and 16 of his comrades will walk free from four jails across the country on Thursday to mark the end of the first year in office of President Kim Dae-Jung.

John Larkin of the Sydney Morning Herald: " Will be an emotional time"
They are all reported to have been jailed for at least 30 years and are serving life sentences for alleged espionage for North Korea or for holding North Korean sympathies.

They had been left out of two previous amnesties because of their persistent refusal to sign an oath of obedience to South Korea's laws.

The government announced an amnesty for 8,800 people altogether - most of them petty offenders with traffic convictions.

More than 1,500 prisoners are expected to be released.

President Kim Dae-Jung is himself a former dissident and political prisoner who was once sentenced to death by a military dictatorship.

Amnesty International pressure

Justice Minister Park Sang-Cheon admitted Seoul had bowed to pressure from human rights groups, and said the move would create "greater national harmony".

"We decided to release Woo Yong-Gak and 16 other long-term prisoners on humanitarian grounds to meet calls from Amnesty International and other groups for their release," he told a news conference.

The president waived the requirement for the political prisoners to sign the oath of obedience to the National Security Law which bans the display of any pro-North Korean sentiment.

North and South Korea remain technically at war following the 1950-53 conflict.

The 17 have consistently refused to sign the oath seeing it as an infringement of their freedom of speech.

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