Accused of spying and setting up church, South Korean sentenced in North Korea

Story highlights

  • South Korean man sentenced to life in hard labor in North Korea
  • South Korean ministry criticizes sentencing and calls for Kim's release
  • Kim Jong Uk is accused of trying to set up underground churches in North Korea

North Korea's Supreme Court has sentenced a South Korean man to life of hard labor for commiting "hostile acts" against the country, according to its state-run news agency, KCNA.

The South Korean, identified as Kim Jong Uk, averted the death sentence because he allegedly "repented of his crimes," which included an attempt to set up an underground church inside the country, according to KCNA.

Kim was charged with state subversion, espionage and anti-state propaganda, agitation and illegal entry into the border. The defendant confessed to the crimes in a trial held May 30, according to KCNA.

North Korea is known to push detainees to make false confessions.

South Korean officials condemned the sentence, saying that North Korea was "in serious violation" of international norms, and urged for Kim's release.

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"North Korea did not respond at all to our request for the family and the legal counsel to access Kim Jeong-uk," said the Unification Ministry spokesperson. The English spelling of Kim's name varied between KCNA and South Korea's ministry.

Kim's previous appearance

KCNA outlined Kim's alleged crimes: "He committed anti-DPRK religious acts, malignantly hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK overseas and tried to infiltrate into Pyongyang after illegally trespassing on the border for the purpose of setting up underground church and gathering information about the internal affairs of the DPRK while luring its inhabitants into south Korea and spying on the DPRK."

In February, Kim appeared before foreign journalists in Pyongyang and apologized for carrying out "anti-state" activities.

Kim said he had worked as a missionary for several years on the Chinese side of the border with North Korea, running a church that sought North Korean converts.

Missionaries in North Korea

Missionaries have sought to evangelize in North Korea, as the totalitarian country forbids independent religious activities. Although North Korea contains a number of state-controlled churches, they are considered for show to international audiences, according to a report by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea.

Religion, especially Christianity, is viewed as a political threat because the state does not condone any belief system other than its official state ideology, according to the report.

Witnesses claim that underground churches function inside North Korea, according to the U.N. report. Also, missionaries and underground churches have secretly set up in China near the border to aid defectors.

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North Korea is currently holding Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American, who was arrested in November 2012, after entering the city as a tourist. Bae was sentenced in May 2013, accused of trying to topple the North Korean government and bringing religious activities into the country. Bae has remained in North Korean custody despite efforts by the U.S. and his family.

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Earlier this year, John Short, a 75-year-old Australian missionary was detained by North Korean authorities in February. He had "committed a criminal act by secretly spreading his Bible tracts around a Buddhist temple in Pyongyang," after entering the country as a tourist, according to KCNA. After issuing a public apology, Short was released.

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