[PYONGYANG] North Korea on Friday paraded a defector accused of involvement in a child abduction plot it says was masterminded by South Korean agents, as Seoul demanded the man's immediate release.
In a carefully stage-managed press conference in Pyongyang, Ko Hyon-Chol, 53, who fled the North in 2013 and was granted South Korean citizenship, "confessed" to attempting to kidnap two orphans and take them to the South.
"I committed the unpardonable crime of being involved in attempted child abduction," a weeping Ko said at the event in the People's Palace of Culture in central Pyongyang.
Ko, wearing dark trousers and a blue striped shirt, was marched in by two uniformed soldiers and sat at a desk below framed photos of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il - North Korea's revered late leaders.
In a 30-minute statement during which he frequently wept and referred to himself as a "traitor of the fatherland", he detailed his defection, recruitment by the South's spy agency and his "criminal acts".
Such choreographed and apparently scripted public confessions are standard practice for foreign or North Korean nationals arrested for subversive activity.
Ko's case comes amid an ongoing dispute between North and South Korea over the April defection to the South of a dozen North Korean women working in a restaurant in China.
Pyongyang insists that the women were kidnapped by the South's spy agency - the National Intelligence Service (NIS) - but Seoul says they fled of their own free will.
Ko said his South Korean handlers told him in May to arrange the kidnapping of orphans from North Korea, promising him US$10,000 for each child.
"They asked me if I knew about the 12 women who defected as a group and said that was just the beginning", Ko said.
"So I set about abducting children but it wasn't easy," Ko said.
Eventually he selected two targets, two girls, aged eight and nine, who were in an orphanage.
He crossed the river from China into North Korea with his inflatable boat - which he planned to use to ferry back the girls - just after midnight on May 27, but was arrested hours later.
Ko originally fled in January 2013 because he had been involved in smuggling and was being investigated by Pyongyang authorities.
He lived in China for about a year before arriving in the South in 2014 via Laos and Thailand.
He said he had struggled to adjust to life in South Korea and had been unable to find a job, so sought out a defectors' organisation through which he was introduced to NIS agents in December 2015.
Seoul responded abruptly, demanding North Korea "release our citizens including Ko Hyon-Chol and immediately repatriate them," the South's unification ministry said in a statement Friday.
It warned Pyongyang to stop "illegally arresting" its citizens and using them for a "war of propaganda".
North Korea is currently holding at least four South Korean detainees who have been arrested since 2013, including Ko.
Ko's "confession" comes as relations between Pyongyang and Washington plumb new depths, after the US announced plans to deploy an advanced missile defence system in South Korea and put North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on its sanctions blacklist.
Pyongyang called the measure a "declaration of war", closed its last remaining channels of communication with the US and said it would handle all bilateral issues based on its "wartime laws" - including those relating to two Americans currently detained in the North.
Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old college student, was sentenced to 15 years' hard labour in March for stealing a propaganda banner from a hotel. Korean-American missionary Kim Dong-Chul is also serving a jail term on charges of subversion and espionage.
The new US missile defence system is also proving deeply unpopular in South Korea, where Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn was Friday egged by angry protestors calling for its retraction.