A South Korean missionary held in North Korea said he had committed crimes against the state in a bid to establish an underground church, according to video footage provided yesterday by the North’s state news agency.
The South Korean missionary, identified by the North as Kim Jong-uk, spoke at what appeared to be a stage-managed news conference from beneath portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung.
His sudden appearance was a surprise after signs of warming ties between the two Koreas, evidenced by the reunions of families split by the 1950-53 war between the two sides and Seoul’s humanitarian offer to support vaccines against foot-and-mouth disease for the North.
“Since I first arrived in Dandong, China, in August 2007, I had thought a lot about sneaking into Pyongyang,” Kim Jong-uk said in the video.
Wearing a dark suit and blue tie, he said he had first met North Koreans while working as a missionary in China.
“I told them we should build God’s nation and break down the North’s regime and political system. I gave them an anti-Republic education and orders to go back and build an underground church,” Kim Jong-uk said.
North Korea says Kim Jong-uk is a South Korean spy who was secretly trying to overthrow the state.
Pyongyang said in November it had arrested a South Korean spy and was investigating him on charges of espionage, a rare report of a secret agent being captured by either neighbor.
After the broadcast, the South Korean government urged Pyongyang to free Kim Jong-uk.
“It is hard to understand that [North Korea] calls our national, who is doing purely religious activities, an anti-state criminal,” Kim Eui-do, a spokesman for the South’s Unification Ministry that handles inter-Korea affairs, told a news briefing.
North Korea espouses freedom of religion, but ranks as one of the world’s most oppressive regimes in that regard. The UN this month cited a lack of religious freedom in a state whose human rights abuses it likened to those of Nazi Germany.
North Korea has held Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae for more than a year and convicted him of trying to overthrow the state. A North Korean court sentenced Bae to 15 years of hard labor, and efforts by Washington to secure his release have been thwarted.
Australian missionary John Short was detained this month by North Korean authorities in Pyongyang for carrying religious materials, his family said.
Canberra yesterday said that it remained in the dark on the whereabouts and wellbeing of Short, a 75-year-old Hong Kong-based Australian citizen who was taken from his Pyongyang hotel by police for allegedly distributing Korean-language Christian pamphlets and attempting to proselytize.
Canberra has been working on the case via the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which represents its interests in the absence of diplomatic relations between Australia and North Korea.
Justin Brown, head of the Australian foreign office’s consular section, said their inquiries into his health or whereabouts had so far yielded little.
“We have yet to hear from Mr Short,” Brown told a parliamentary hearing. “We do not know anything about the conditions in which he’s being held.”