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North Koreans reportedly face execution for contact with South Korean missionary

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February 27, 2014: Kim Jung Wook, a South Korean Baptist missionary, speaks during a news conference in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP)

Thirty-three North Koreans will likely be executed after being charged with attempting to overthrow the repressive regime of Kim Jong-un. The means of their alleged treachery? Receiving money to set up 500 underground churches from a South Korean missionary who has since been jailed by Pyongyang.

The South Korean newspaper The Chosun Ilbo reported Wednesday that North Korea watchers believe that the harsh punishments have been ordered by Kim Jong-un to combat a wave of dissatisfaction with the regime's isolationist "juche" doctrine.

The new revelations come less than one week after Kim Jung-wook, a South Korean Baptist missionary, held a press conference at which he apologized for committing "anti-state" crimes and appealed for his release from North Korean custody. 

The missionary told reporters that he was arrested in early October after entering the North from China and trying to make his way to Pyongyang with Bibles, Christian instructional materials and movies. Kim Jung-wook said he had received assistance from South Korea's intelligence agency.

"I was thinking of turning North Korea into a religious country, and destroying its present government and political system," he said at the time. "I received money from the intelligence services and followed instructions from them, and arranged North Koreans to act as their spies. And I also set up an underground church in China, in Dandong, and got the members to talk and write, for me to collect details about the reality of life in North Korea, and I provided this to the intelligence services."

A South Korean intelligence source in China took issue with Kim's account, telling the Chosun Ilbo that the missionary did not enter North Korea voluntarily, but was kidnapped by agents of the Pyongyang government in China. 

During Kim Jung-wook's press conference, North Korean officials also showed video of North Koreans who confessed to coming into contact with the missionary. The Chosun Ilbo reported that they said that Kim told them to build a church on the site where a massive statue of North Korea's founder, Kim Il-Sung, stands in Pyongyang whenever the regime falls. 

North Korea continues to hold Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, who was detained while leading a group on a tour of North Korea in 2012 and later sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Bae was moved to a hospital last summer in poor health, but said at the news conference that he was being transferred back to prison.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Click for more from the Chosun Ilbo