SEOUL Authorities arrested a South Korean religious activist on Friday as he passed through the heavily fortified demilitarized zone after an illegal trip to North Korea.
U.N. Command spokesman Kim Yong—kyu said South Korean officials took Rev. Han Sang—ryol into custody as he walked through the village of Panmunjom along the border separating the two Koreas.
The U.N. Command, which oversees an armistice that ended the 1950—53 Korean War has jurisdiction over the southern half of the village. The command and South Korea say Rev. Han’s crossing violated the armistice as well as a South Korean law barring its citizens from visiting the North without government permission.
Rev. Han, wearing a traditional hanbok dress, waved his hands and carried a flag with a white background and a blue image of the Korean peninsula widely used as a symbol of unification, Mr. Kim said.
Rev. Han is a member of a small but vocal minority of South Korean activists and religious groups that are sympathetic to North Korea and Pyongyang embraced his visit.
The religious activist would be charged with violating anti—communist national security laws for making illegal trips to North Korea, a police official said. He asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to media about the ongoing case.
The security law stipulates harsh punishment for South Koreans who join pro—Pyongyang organizations or have unauthorized contact with the communist country. It also bans citizens from supporting or praising North Korea.
If convicted, Rev. Han could be sentenced to up to seven years in prison, said the police official.
In 1989, Im Su—kyong, a student activist, was arrested upon returning to South Korea through Panmunjom after making an illegal visit. She was sentenced to five years in prison. In 1992, she was paroled and later pardoned.
During his trip that began on June 12, Rev. Han blamed the South Korea government for the sinking of its own warship in March. He also accused President Lee Myung—bak of discarding past rapprochement accords with North Korea and raising tension by staging joint military exercises with the United States.
In May, an international team of investigators found the North responsible for the ship sinking, which killed 46 South Korean sailors.
North Korea, which denies involvement, has recently issued a series of threats to South Korea over its joint military drills with the United States.
South Korea and the U.S. plan to hold a new round of exercises in the Yellow Sea early next month.
This week, South Korea and the U.S. began annual drills that North Korea has called a rehearsal for invasion. These follow massive joint naval exercises the allies conducted last month.
Also on Friday, South Korea’s Red Cross sent a message to its North Korean counterpart calling for the release of a South Korean fishing boat and its crew, according to the Unification Ministry in Seoul.
The request came a day after North Korea confirmed that it seized the boat and four South Korean and three Chinese fishermen on August 8 for illegal fishing in the North’s eastern exclusive economic zone.