Joo Won-moon was released from North Korea on Monday after spending five months in criminal detention. The South Korean citizen, who attended New York University, was arrested in April after entering the country illegally. He was subsequently detained on suspicion of violating the National Security Law.
It is unclear why the 21-year-old man risked a criminal charge, and prison time, to sneak into the volatile country. However, during a May news conference, Joo Won-moon said he was “willing to accept any punishment” for the crime.
As reported by CNN, the young man crossed the North Korea border in Dandong, China, near the Great Wall. He then scaled two barbed-wire fences and crossed several miles of farmland before coming to a river.
— The New York Times (@nytimes) October 5, 2015
Woo said “he followed the river until soldiers arrested him” for entering North Korea without the required documentation.
During the news conference, Won-moon said he was aware he was breaking the law. However, he crossed the border with the expectation that he would be arrested and detained.
Although he did not reveal specific details, the NYU student said he hoped his arrest would lead to “some great event… and hopefully that event could have a good effect on the relations between the north and [South Korea]”
A native of Seoul, South Korea, Joo Won-moon moved to the United States with his family at the age of 7. Although they initially settled in Wisconsin, Won-moon and his family eventually moved to Rhode Island. The young man was later granted permanent residency in the United States — where he attended classes at New York University.
Won-moon said he started thinking about crossing the North Korean border in February. During the May news conference, the young man said he “constantly thought about it” and eventually devised a plan to enter the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea near the Great Wall of China.
— AJ+ (@ajplus) October 5, 2015
Joo Won-moon decided to take a semester off school to travel throughout the United States and abroad. In April, he traveled to China — where he crossed the border into North Korea.
In the weeks following his arrest, the NYU student confirmed he was denied contact with his family and friends. However, he said he was being “treated… with the best of humanitarian treatment.”
In September, Won-moon made an appearance at another new conference. As reported by NBC News, he was still being detained — without any means of communication outside North Korea.
Although he said he was still being denied contact with his family and friends, the young man said he was being “treated generously” and was “very healthy.”
On Monday, the NYU student was released to authorities in South Korea. North Korean officials later confirmed the student was ultimately “deported.”
Although he was released from custody in North Korea, Joo Won-moon is still facing criminal charges.
— The WorldPost (@TheWorldPost) September 25, 2015
As reported by Huffington Post, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service is currently investigating whether the NYU student violated the National Security Law when he crossed the border into North Korea.
It is unclear what prompted the young man’s release. However, an analyst suggested “it may have [been] calculated… his release might boost the impoverished, authoritarian country’s international image and lead to more investment and tourism.”
Although Won-moon was released, officials in South Korea are concerned for three other detainees who remain in custody in North Korea.
According to reports, the three others are accused of various crimes, including “espionage acts or attempts to establish underground Christian churches.”
Joo Won-moon’s release is being applauded by South Korea, and several humanitarian organizations. However, officials are concerned for the welfare of the other detainees. It is hoped that the NYU student’s release is an indication that North Korean officials are interested in improving foreign relations.
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