SEOUL, Aug. 11 (UPI) -- Hopes are running high for the release of five South Koreans held captive in North Korea, following the dramatic visit by former U.S. President Bill Clinton that secured the freedom of two American journalists.
The head of Seoul's Hyundai Group, which has business ventures in North Korea, began a three-day trip to Pyongyang on Monday, following in Clinton's footsteps and hoping to bring the detainees back home.
Hyun Jung-eun crossed the land border through the demilitarized zone en route to Pyongyang, where she expects to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry. "Hyun has arrived in Pyongyang on Monday afternoon and was holding talks with North Korean officials," a government official here said.
Just before leaving for the North, Hyun told reporters that she would "make efforts" to gain the release of a Hyundai official detained for more than four months. He was caught during a business trip to the inter-Korean joint industrial complex just north of the border.
The 44-year-old employee at the Seoul-based Hyundai Asan, which runs the Kaesong Industrial Park, was arrested March 30 by the North's military and charged with criticizing Pyongyang's political system and trying to lure a North Korean female worker into the capitalist South.
The North has since rejected Seoul's repeated requests for access to the detainee, whose whereabouts are still unknown. Defectors from the North said the detainee could be punished on espionage charges, which would put him in a prison camp for more than a decade.
Hyun is also expected to negotiate the release of four South Korean fishermen whose boat strayed into the North on July 30. The 29-ton squid fishing vessel carrying four crew members, all in their 50s, accidentally crossed the maritime border after suffering a malfunction in its satellite navigation system, according to Seoul officials.
The North said the boat had "illegally intruded" into its territorial waters and the fishermen have been "under investigation," in an apparent bid to use the case to win political concessions from the South.
North Korea scored major political points by using the detention of two U.S. journalists to play a political game with the United States. In return for releasing the female journalists, the North's embattled leader Kim Jong Il brought the former U.S. president to his door to offer a "sincere apology," which could help shore up his legitimacy at home and abroad.
The North also used Bill Clinton's visit to promote Kim Jong Il's third son and heir apparent Kim Jong Un, saying the 26-year-old had engineered the episode, according to Seoul's semiofficial Yonhap News Agency.
Pyongyang's National Security Agency said in a recent "internal lecture" that "General Kim Jong Un's artifice let former U.S. President Clinton cross the Pacific to apologize to the Great Leader," Yonhap said, citing sources in Seoul.
"It was all made possible thanks to General Kim Jong Un's extraordinary prophecy and outstanding tactics," the notice was quoted as saying.
South Korean officials and analysts said Kim would use the detention of the South Koreans to score another political point. They said Hyun is likely to meet Kim Jong Il to discuss the release of the South Koreans.
"Hyun could meet Kim over Tuesday luncheon. If the meeting takes place, the detainees are likely to be freed within this week," a government source said.
Analysts say Hyun would serve as a de facto South Korean envoy to the North, just like Bill Clinton. As the leader of the business conglomerate that runs massive economic projects in the North, Hyun is one of only a few South Koreans who have ever met the North's reclusive leader.
Hyun met Kim three times between 2005 and 2007, mainly to discuss economic projects in the North, such as the joint industrial complex and tour programs to the North's mountain resort and ancient city.
Hyun is the daughter-in-law of Chung Ju-yung, the late founder of Hyundai Group, once South Korea's biggest conglomerate. Chung played a pivotal role in promoting cross-border economic projects since June 1998 when he, along with his father, led 500 head of cattle into the North in a pledge to rehabilitate their hometown there.
Under Chung's initiatives, Hyundai has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into projects in the North that have served as a major cash cow for the impoverished country.
Hyun's visit comes on the heels of Bill Clinton's 20-hour journey to Pyongyang last week to secure the release of two journalists, Euna Lee and Lisa Ling, sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for entering the country illegally in March.
During a meeting with Kim Jong Il, Clinton also asked for the release of South Korean and Japanese detainees held in North Korea, U.S. national security adviser Jim Jones was quoted as saying by Fox News.
The surprising release of the two Americans gave a fresh urgency to South Korea's efforts to bring home its citizens held in the North. President Lee Myung-bak said his government is "doing everything it can" to win the release of the detainees.
"The government fully understands the concerns over an issue that is directly related to the lives and safety of our citizens, so I hope that people will trust the government and let it do its work," Lee said.
Lee was facing calls to send a special envoy to win the release of the South Koreans as U.S. President Barack Obama sent Bill Clinton to Pyongyang to free the American journalists.
Lee's government had ruled out the possibility of sending an envoy to negotiate the release for fear it could be considered as bowing to the North's pressure, but it voiced hopes that Hyun could play a role like Clinton to bring the detainees home.
In a rare friendly gesture toward the South following Clinton's visit, the North's main state newspaper Rodong Sinmun said Pyongyang "is ready to ease the risks of military confrontation on the peninsula if the South takes responsible actions."