North Korea has sentenced South Korean Baptist missionary Kim Jung Wook (or Kim Jung Uk, according to North Korean spelling) to a lifetime of hard labor for alleged spying and trying to set up an underground church, according to state media.
According to reports, Kim admitted to anti-North Korean religious acts and “malignantly hurting the dignity” of the country’s supreme leadership, the ruling Kim family, during a trial held Friday. Other charges included “luring inhabitants into South Korea,” according to CNN. North Korea said in a dispatch released Saturday that Kim had a defense counsel, but details of the trial cannot be independently confirmed.
An unidentified defense attorney said Kim “sincerely repented of his crimes and apologized for them.” He also alleged that Kim requested the court commute the death sentence prosecutors had demanded. North Korea said an expert produced “evidence” that included religious books and spying devices, among other things.
Kim admitted to receiving assistance from South Korea’s intelligence agency and apologized for “anti-state” crimes during an appearance on North Korean state television in February. South Korea denies any such cooperation, and North Korea has been known to push detainees into false confessions used for propaganda.
“It is regrettable that North Korea went ahead with perfunctory trial procedures in a unilateral manner and gave our citizen severe punishment,” South Korea’s Unification Ministry said in a statement. “We strongly urge North Korea to release and repatriate our citizen to South Korea as soon as possible.”
North Korea arrested Kim in October after he crossed into the country from China. He had worked as a missionary on the Chinese side of the border, helping North Korean defectors reach South Korea, Thailand, or other countries, according to Joo Dongsik, one of Kim’s friends in Seoul. In August 2012, Chinese authorities returned 12 North Korean women after they were found at Kim’s shelter. Joo suggested Kim hoped to find out what happened to them and learn about the North Korean food shortage on his trip into the country.
Kim isn’t the first foreign missionary to be detained recently in the strictly controlled communist country. American tour operator Kenneth Bae was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor last year for “hostile acts” against North Korea. Bae also is a Christian missionary and was detained while leading a group on a tour of North Korea in 2012. He remains in prison despite some diplomatic efforts to secure his release.
Australian John Short was arrested in Pyongyang earlier this year for allegedly distributing Christian materials. He was released a few days later after he offered an apology.