BEIJING – North Korea on Monday deported an Australian missionary detained for spreading Christianity in the country, saying he apologized for his anti-state religious acts and requested forgiveness.
Authorities in North Korea had arrested John Short for secretly spreading Bible tracts near a Buddhist temple in Pyongyang on Feb. 16, the birthday of late leader Kim Jong Il, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said.
The report said that Short, 75, admitted he committed a crime that hurt the Korean people's trust in their leaders and that he apologized for his behavior.
"I now realize the seriousness of my insult to the Korean people on February 16th because I made the Korean people angry and for this I truly apologize," Short was quoted as saying in a written apology, according to separate KCNA report. "I am willing to bow down on my knees to request this tolerance of (North Korea) and the Korean people."
KCNA said North Korea decided to expel him in part out of consideration for his age.
Short arrived later Monday on a flight to Beijing, where he declined to speak to reporters saying he was too tired and was escorted to a vehicle from the Australian Embassy.
"Clearly this is welcome news for Mr. Short, his family and his supporters," Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement. "Australian consular officials stand ready to provide assistance to Mr. Short to ensure he can return to his home in Hong Kong as soon as possible."
North Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the government. Defectors from the country have said that the distribution of Bibles and secret prayer services can mean banishment to a labor camp or execution.
North Korea typically frees foreign detainees after they've admitted their crimes, but many say after their releases that their confessions were given involuntarily and under duress. Last week, North Korea presented to the media a detained South Korean Baptist missionary who apologized for allegedly trying to reach Pyongyang with Bibles, Christian instructional materials and movies in October.
North Korea has been holding a Korean-American missionary, Kenneth Bae, since November 2012. Bae, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for hostile acts, held a similar news conference to apologize his behavior.
KCNA on its website posted video showing a calm-looking Short, dressed in a black jacket, reading what appears to be his written apology before taking a quick bow at a room.
Kim Jong Il's birthday and that of his father and North Korea founder Kim Il Sung are the nation's biggest holidays. Kim Jong Il died in late 2011 and his son Kim Jong Un took over power.
Short, from Barmera, South Australia state, has been arrested multiple times while evangelizing in mainland China, according to a biography on a Christian website, Gospel Attract.
He was banned from entering China for nearly two years after his second arrest in 1996. Authorities later let him back in and he was arrested several more times for "speaking out about the brutality against Chinese Christians," said the site.
Short has lived in Hong Kong for 50 years.
According to his written apology published by the KCNA, Short said he also visited North Korea in August 2012 to spread Bible tracts.
Associated Press writers Jung-yoon Choi and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, and cameraman Wong Wai-bor in Beijing contributed to this report.