NKorea set to free SKorean detainee

SEOUL: A top South Korean industrialist is expected to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il later Wednesday and secure the release of a Seoul worker detained in the communist state, media reports said.

Hyundai Group chairwoman Hyun Jung-Eun has extended her stay in the North until Thursday, heightening speculation she will meet Kim as she did in 2007.

Hyun crossed the border Monday to discuss the release of her employee, days after former US president Bill Clinton went to Pyongyang to secure the freedom of two American journalists.

The release of the Hyundai employee would be the first conciliatory gesture to the South from the North since their ties soured with the launch of Seoul's new conservative government 16 months ago.

International tensions have also risen following the North's latest nuclear and missile tests and a US-led drive for tougher sanctions in response.

But North Korean officials signalled to Clinton last week that they want better relations, according to US National Security Adviser Jim Jones.

South Korean media predicted that Hyun would meet Kim Wednesday and win the freedom of the engineer who works for Hyundai Asan, the group subsidiary which handles business with the North.

Neither Hyundai Asan nor the unification ministry could confirm plans for such a meeting.

The North has since March 30 detained the engineer, who worked at the Seoul-funded Kaesong estate in the North.

It accuses him of insulting its system and urging a North Korean worker to defect, but refuses to grant access to the man or say where he is now being held.

South Korean politicians and activists have complained that the North has treated the engineer -- a fellow Korean -- worse than it did the American journalists, who were allowed diplomatic access and phone calls home.

On July 30 the North also detained the four-member crew of a South Korean squid fishing boat which sailed across the border due to a defective navigation system.

"We think North Korea will release the worker and the crew in sequence before August 15," an unidentified Seoul official told Dong-A Ilbo newspaper.

Both Koreas celebrate liberation from Japanese colonial rule on that date.

Analysts say the North's priority is improving relations with the United States but it must mend ties with South Korea to some extent as part of the process.

Hyundai's business ventures in the North have been hard hit by worsening relations since a conservative government took office in Seoul and adopted a tougher line with Pyongyang.

The Kaesong estate is the last one still operating. Its future has become increasingly clouded since Pyongyang demanded huge extra wage and rent payments from Seoul and detained the engineer.

Tours to the Mount Kumgang resort on the east coast have been suspended since July 2008, when North Korean soldiers shot dead a Seoul housewife who strayed into a poorly marked military zone.