An appeals court has lowered the sentence for a South Korean man charged with making an unauthorized visit to North Korea after finding him not guilty of paying his respect to late North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, a court official said Sunday.
The defendant, identified only by his surname Cho, 54, made the visit to the North via Germany, Japan and China in 1995, and attended a series of events, including paying homage at Pyongyang's Kumsusan Palace, where the embalmed body of the country's founding leader Kim Il-sung lies in state.
Cho decided to visit the North to meet with Lee In-mo, a former North Korean spy who spent about 40 years in prison in South Korea while refusing to renounce communism before he was repatriated to his communist homeland in 1993. Cho was one of the supporters for Lee when he was in South Korean prison.
After the trip, Cho sought asylum in Germany and stayed there until he returned to South Korea in December last year. Upon his return, he was detained and indicted on charges related to the visit to the North.
Under the anti-communist National Security Law, South Koreans are banned from visiting North Korea without government permission.
The law also makes it a crime to praise the communist nation or make unauthorized contact with people from North Korea.
In the first trial, Cho was sentenced to two years in prison that will be suspended for three years.
But Cho appealed the verdict, claiming that he never recognized the North's political system or the country's ruling ideology of "juche" or self-reliance, though he attended a series of events organized by North Korean authorities.
The appeals court in Seoul accepted his claim and cleared him of charges related to paying homage at the Kumsusan Palace, saying the visit can be seen as a simple act of praying for the soul of a dead person in a nation where courtesy is considered important.
In particular, the court's verdict also made a mention of the term, "Korea, Country of courteous people in the Orient," which often refers to Korea when underscoring the point that its people think highly and importantly of politeness and manners.
"It is uncertain if we can determine whether the act of paying respect in a passive manner at a facility where the body of the late North Korean leader lies represents sympathizing with anti-state activity or poses a clear danger to the existence, safety and democratic order" of South Korea, the court said.
But a court official cautioned against reading too much into the verdict, saying the ruling was made after taking the purpose of the trip and various other circumstances into account, and that the decision does not mean that paying tribute at the Kumsusan Palace cannot constitute a crime for other people. (Yonhap News)