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Friday, June 25, 1999 Published at 22:26 GMT 23:26 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Korean tourist released by North

Min Young-mi (on stretcher) was held in North Korea for six days

A South Korean woman who was detained last Saturday while on a tourist trip in the North has been released.

The North Korean authorities say she admitted "preaching defection" when she talked to a northern guide but they had decided to release her as a "magnanimous measure".

The release comes amid signs that tension may be easing between the two Koreas.

South Korea has announced that it is lowering its military alert following a naval confrontation off the western coast 10 days ago, in which a North Korean gunboat was sunk during an exchange of fire over fishing grounds.

'South Korean agent'

[ image: President Kim Dae-Jung looks across the border to the North]
President Kim Dae-Jung looks across the border to the North
The South Korean tourist, Min Young-mi, was handed over to representatives of the South Korean Hyundai Group which had sponsored her cruise ship tour to Mount Kumgang.

South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung had threatened to halt the tourism programme between the two countries if she was not released.

A government spokesman in the southern capital Seoul said that she had been let out "as a result of the firm stance on the security of the people".

But the North Korean authorities say the woman was acting as an agent for the South by trying to persuade her mountain tour guide to defect.

The official Northern news agency said Min Young-mi had "begged lenient forgiveness for her criminal act".

[ image: Mount Kumgang has been a major centre for tourism]
Mount Kumgang has been a major centre for tourism
It said she was released out of consideration for the wishes of people from the South to visit Mount Kumgang and because of the government's relations with the Hyundai business group.

President Kim Dae-Jung has been pursuing a policy of reconciliation with North Korea, including the easing of restrictions on doing business with the North. The tourist cruises have been a major element of this economic engagement and the main source of foreign exchange for the poverty-stricken North.

The tours have already seen tens of thousands of South Koreans visiting a sealed-off area around Mount Kumgang.

Talks back on

Talks between North and South Korea about reuniting families separated by the Korean war are to re-start at the weekend after stalling last Tuesday, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry.

The talks collapsed when North Korea demanded an apology from the South for the naval clashes in the Yellow Sea last week.

The fighting was the most serious outbreak of hostilities since the Korean war which ended in 1953. The two sides have never signed a peace agreement and a state of war still exists between them.

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