North Korean spy, 90, begs to return to Pyongyang to die

A 90-year-old North Korean spy condemned to death twice for espionage has begged to return to Pyongyang to die - despite being born in the South.

Seo Ok-Ryol spent three decades in prison, most of it in solitary confinement, in South Korea before being released after signing a pledge of loyalty to Seoul.

But the pensioner who insists he has 'done nothing wrong but loved the fatherland' now wants to return to North Korea before he dies. 

Born in what is now South Korea, where he still has relatives, then a soldier and spy for the North - where he left a wife and two children - Seo epitomises the enduring divisions of the peninsula, and the way Koreans have been buffeted by the forces of history and politics.

The South repatriated some 60 former long-term prisoners in 2000, mostly soldiers, guerillas and spies, following a landmark inter-Korean summit.

Seo Ok-Ryol (pictured), a 90-year-old North Korean spy condemned to death twice for espionage, has begged to return to Pyongyang to die - despite being born in the South

Seo Ok-Ryol (pictured), a 90-year-old North Korean spy condemned to death twice for espionage, has begged to return to Pyongyang to die - despite being born in the South

Seo Ok-Ryol spent three decades in prison, most of it in solitary confinement, in South Korea before being released after signing an oath of loyalty to Seoul 

The pensioner who insists he has 'done nothing wrong but loved the fatherland' now wants to return to North Korea before he dies 

The pensioner who insists he has 'done nothing wrong but loved the fatherland' now wants to return to North Korea before he dies 

But Seo was not eligible as he had signed a pledge of loyalty to the South to secure his release from prison, obtaining citizenship as a result.

Now activists are mounting a campaign for him and 17 other ageing ex-inmates still loyal to Pyongyang - the oldest is 94 - to be allowed to go home.

Born on an island in southern Korea, Seo became a communist while a student at Seoul's elite Korea University and joined the North's forces during the Korean War, retreating with them as American-led United Nations troops advanced.

He joined the North's ruling Workers' Party and was working as a teacher in Pyongyang when he was assigned to an espionage training school in 1961.

'I had to leave without so much as saying goodbye to my wife,' he said.

Sent on a mission to the South to try to recruit a senior government official whose brother had defected North, he smuggled himself across the border by swimming the Yeomhwa river and managed to meet his parents and siblings.

But he was cold-shouldered when he tried to give the official a letter from his brother.

'As far as my brother is concerned, he is as good as dead for me. I reported to government authorities that he died during the war,' the man told him, refusing the missive.

Born on an island in the South, Seo became a communist while a student at Seoul's elite Korea University and joined the North's forces during the Korean War, retreating with them as American-led United Nations troops advanced. Some of his photographs are displayed in his home in Gwangju

Born on an island in the South, Seo became a communist while a student at Seoul's elite Korea University and joined the North's forces during the Korean War, retreating with them as American-led United Nations troops advanced. Some of his photographs are displayed in his home in Gwangju

Activists are mounting a campaign for Seo and 17 other ageing ex-inmates still loyal to Pyongyang - the oldest is 94 - to be allowed to go home 

But he did not turn Seo in, even though - then as now - unauthorised contact with North Koreans was punishable by heavy jail terms.

His mission a failure, Seo stayed in the South for a month, constantly on edge trying to hide his code book, until a radio broadcast of a series of numbers secretly ordered him back.

But he arrived late at the pickup point and missed the rescue boat. He tried to swim the rest of the way, only for the current to sweep him back to the bank, where he was overpowered and detained by

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