SEOUL, South Korea - North Korea freed a South Korean worker Thursday it had detained for months for allegedly denouncing its political system - an apparent goodwill gesture toward Seoul and Washington amid the standoff over the regime's nuclear weapons program.
Last week, the North released jailed American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling to former U.S. President Bill Clinton, helping ease months of tensions stoked by the country's recent atomic and long-range rocket tests.
On Thursday, Pyongyang deported Yoo Seong-jin, a 44-year-old technician who worked at a joint industrial park in the North, where about 110 South Korean-run factories employ about 40,000 North Korean workers. Yoo has been held for allegedly denouncing the North's government and attempting to persuade a North Korean worker to defect.
"I'm happy that I returned safely," Yoo told reporters in a brief comment after arriving at a South Korean immigration control centre near the border.
Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jung-eun has been in the North for the past few days, and she may have negotiated the release of Yoo, who is an employee for Hyundai's North Korean business arm, Hyundai Asan.
But analysts said just as important may have been Clinton's reported urging that the Yoo be freed. After months of antagonizing Seoul and Washington, the North may be looking to turn things around, they said.
Relations between the two Koreas - which remain technically at war more than 50 years after their conflict ended in a truce - began deteriorating when pro-U.S., conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office in Seoul early last year. Lee has advocated and implemented a harder line on the North than his predecessors. The North responded by cutting most ties or curtailing key joint projects except for the Kaesong industrial complex.
Ties reached new lows this year as the isolated regime pulled out of nuclear negotiations, vowed to restart its shuttered reactor, test-launched a barrage of missiles and conducted an atomic test. Analysts have said recently that those provocative actions were designed to push Washington into holding direct talks with the North. Clinton's visit may have halted the provocation - offering Pyongyang, and leader Kim, a measure of prestige.
And now, analysts say, the North may be responding in kind.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, said the release of the South Korean was meant to please Washington as much as Seoul, citing Clinton's request.
"We can consider the releases as the North's gestures showing its intention to facilitate ties with Seoul and Washington and resolve pending issues," added Paik Hak-soon, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute think-tank near Seoul.
But the North is still holding four South Korean fishermen whose boat was seized last month after straying accidentally into northern waters, and the analysts said their fate - and that of the ties, in general - depends on the South's next move.
"Now the ball is in the South Korean court," Paik said.
But it is unclear, however, if Seoul is willing to play that game.
"It's fortunate that Yoo is returning to his family, though it's rather late," presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwan said in a statement. He added that the South Korean government will maintain a "consistent policy" toward North - apparently signalling it will not change its hard-line stance.
Associated Press writer Kwang-tae Kim contributed to this report.