SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea said Saturday it has sentenced a South Korean Baptist missionary to hard labor for life for allegedly spying and trying to set up underground churches, the latest in a string of missionaries to run into trouble in the rigidly controlled North.
North Korean state media said the missionary was tried Friday and admitted to anti-North Korean religious acts and "malignantly hurting the dignity" of the country's supreme leadership, a reference to the ruling Kim family. The rival Koreas have different English spelling styles for Korean names, so the North called the missionary Kim Jong Uk, but Seoul has previously referred to him as Kim Jung Wook.
Christian missionaries have been drawn over the years to totalitarian North Korea, which tolerates only strictly sanctioned religious services. North Korean defectors have said that the distribution of Bibles and secret prayer services can mean banishment to a labor camp or execution.
North Korea said in a dispatch dated Friday but released early Saturday that Kim had defense counsel, but the details of the trial could not be independently confirmed.
North Korea does not have an independent judiciary, does not provide fair trials and imposes rigid controls over many aspects of its citizens' lives, including in religious matters, according to the U.S. State Department.
The unidentified North Korean defense attorney said that Kim "sincerely repented of his crimes and apologized for them" and requested that the court commute the death sentence demanded by prosecutors. The North said that an expert produced "evidence such as religious books, memory cards, sex CDs and spying devices carried by the accused for criminal purposes."
Outside analysts have said that North Korea has previously used foreign detainees as bargaining chips in efforts to receive outside aid and political concessions. The sentencing comes amid rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, which is still technically in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.
The rivals' warships traded artillery fire this month near a disputed sea boundary, though no blood was shed. And Pyongyang has staged a series of missile and artillery tests, and its media have put out racist and sexist rhetoric aimed at the leaders of the U.S. and South Korea.
North Korea said Kim was arrested last October after crossing into the country from China. Kim appeared on North Korean TV in February and said he received assistance from South Korea's intelligence agency and apologized for committing "anti-state" crimes. Past detainees have later recanted after appearing at staged news conferences. South Korea has denied any spy links to Kim.
Last year, North Korea sentenced American tour operator Kenneth Bae to 15 years of hard labor for committing "hostile acts" against the country. Bae, also a Christian missionary, was detained while leading a group on a tour of North Korea in 2012.
Earlier this year, an Australian, John Short, was arrested in Pyongyang for allegedly trying to distribute Christian materials. He was later released after he apologized.
Kim had been based largely in Dandong, in China, since 2007, according to a friend in Seoul, Joo Dongsik. Kim helped North Korean defectors get to South Korea via Thailand, Laos and other countries, said Joo, also a Baptist.
In August 2012, a group of 12 North Korean women were caught by Chinese authorities while they were at Kim's shelter and sent back to North Korea. His desire to find out what happened to them and learn about a North Korean food shortage led him to enter the country last October, Joo said.
Kim was born in 1964, Joo said, making him 49 or 50.