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Thursday, February 25, 1999 Published at 16:08 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

'Happy to see the light'

Woo Yong-gak is welcomed by friends and relatives

A North Korean believed to be the world's longest-serving political prisoner has been freed by South Korea after 41 years of solitary confinement.

Angie Knox: "Woo Yong-gak has said that he is very happy to be free"
Former commando Woo Yong-gak, 70, looked healthy but thin as he walked through the gates of Taejon prison.

He was among 17 long-term political detainees released under an amnesty of 1,508 prisoners to mark President Kim Dae-jung's first year in office.

Andrew Wood in Seoul: "The two Koreas are still technically at war"
Mr Woo was welcomed by a throng of reporters and human rights activists, some of whom offered him flowers.

He bowed to the crowd and said: "For over 40 years, I've been in confinement. Now I'm very happy to see the light."

[ image:  ]
Human rights groups said he was seldom allowed outside his cell except for a daily 30-minute walk.

South Korean law specifies solitary confinement for spies, even if they pose no physical threat.

Most of the released political prisoners had been serving sentences for espionage or other activities linked to North Korea which has asked for them to be repatriated.

Prisoner exchange

North Korea has asked for the return of the 17 nationals and went on to mark Thursday's release date - the annivesary of President Kim's inauguration - by attacking his record.

The North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) accused the reformist president of "treachery".

[ image: President Kim refuses to return the North Korean spies]
President Kim refuses to return the North Korean spies
The South Korean president says the prisoners will only be sent back in exchange for South Korean prisoners of war.

South Korea's Defence Ministry estimates 234 PoWs are being held across the border.

Mr Woo, who said he was suffering from diabetes, did not comment on whether he wanted to return to North Korea.

He added only that he hoped the issue would be resolved in a "humanitarian way".

Korean Analyst Georgina Wild: "President Kim's charisma is good for the economy"
President Kim, under pressure from human rights groups, has reportedly waived a security requirement compelling the political prisoners to sign an oath of obedience to South Korean laws.

Human rights groups say that there are around 240 more political prisoners in jail in South Korea.

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