Brother of S. Korean detainee in N.K. hopes for his safe return

SEOUL-- An elder brother of a South Korean detained in North Korea on Saturday expressed hope for his safe return calling for Pyongyang to at least grant consular access on humanitarian grounds.

Kim Jung-wook, a 53-year-old Christian missionary, has been held in North Korea since October 2013 on charges of spying for South Korea's intelligence agency. He was sentenced to hard labor for life.

Concerns about detainees in North Korea including Kim have been growing since Otto Warmbier, an American detainee, was released in a coma in June and died days after his medical evacuation to the United States.

Kim Jeong-sam, 57, voiced hope that, if an immediate repatriation is impossible, North Korea could permit his younger brother to have consular access or a meeting with family members.

"I hope that my brother could come home as soon as possible. If that is not easy, my wish is that there could be one step forward such as allowing (consular) contacts to let my family know about his situation," Kim told Yonhap News Agency by phone.

Kim's brother had been doing missionary work in the Chinese border city of Dandong since 2007, reaching out to North Koreans visiting China or North Korean defectors.

Some media reports said that he entered North Korea to help build underground churches for North Korean Christians.

Kim said that he has no information about the brother's whereabouts or health.

"I hope that he is hanging in there with piety, but I am deeply concerned about his health," he added.

Six South Koreans including Kim's brother and two other pastors are being held in captivity, according to South Korea's spy agency. The two missionaries -- Kim Kuk-gi and Choe Chun-gil -- were also sentenced to hard labor on anti-state charges.

Kim Jung-wook told reporters in Pyongyang in February 2014 that he is sorry for his "anti-state crimes," according to The Associated Press.

"My brother is not a spy," Kim said, flatly denying the North's repeated claim.

He said that Warmbier's tragic death has served as an occasion to attract attention to the issue of detainees in North Korea.

After 17 months of detention, Warmbier was released in a coma, drawing angry reactions from Americans and highlighting North Korea's treatment of detainees. His family insisted that Warmbier died due to "awful torturous mistreatment" by North Korea.

The South Korean government said that it has sought to learn about the conditions of the detained nationals via European countries that have diplomatic ties with Pyongyang and international organizations. But the North has not responded to Seoul's calls.

North Korea has selectively permitted consular access to foreign detainees in the past. Pyongyang is also holding three Americans and one Canadian pastor in captivity.

Sweden's embassy in North Korea is granted consular contact with them as it serves as an interlocutor.

But the North has not allowed any access to the South Korean detainees, as the two Koreas do not recognize each other as states, Seoul's unification ministry said.

"When something important stands behind a wall, should we just give up and sit idle? I think we need to find ways to break down that wall," Kim said.

He voiced hope that the government could pump up more efforts to win the release of his brother and North Korea would accept Seoul's call on humanitarian grounds.

"I have an expectation that the government will do more work on this issue. ...I think that more attention will help resolve the matter," he added.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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