PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea on Thursday presented to the media a South Korean Baptist missionary who it says was arrested more than four months ago for allegedly trying to establish underground Christian churches in the country. With officials watching, he said he was sorry for his "anti-state" crimes.
In his first public appearance since his arrest, Kim Jung Wook appealed to North Korean authorities to show him mercy by releasing him, and also claimed he had received assistance from South Korea's intelligence agency.
South Korea has denied any spy links to Kim and on Thursday, it called for his quick release. Relations between North and South Korea have eased recently, with Pyongyang making conciliatory gestures such as allowing reunions between relatives separated since the Korean War. But tensions have remained, particularly over annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises that began this week.
In the past, North Korean authorities have held staged news conferences where detainees are presented before the media to make statements that they later recant. Sometimes, the government presents former defectors who have returned to the country to express contrition for their actions. North Korea has consistently ranked poorly on an index on media freedom produced by Reporters Without Borders.
Kim told reporters Thursday that he was arrested on Oct. 8 after crossing into the North from China, while trying to reach Pyongyang with Bibles, Christian instructional materials and movies.
Kim said he was unsure what punishment he would face. He said he requested the news conference to show his family he is in good health.
Kim said he had met numerous times with South Korean intelligence officials before entering the North from the Chinese border town of Dandong, and claimed he had received thousands of dollars from them for his service. He said he wanted to go into North Korea to establish a series of underground churches to spread Christianity.
"I was thinking of turning North Korea into a religious country, and destroying its present government and political system," Kim said. "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."
In November, North Korea's state media said the country had arrested a South Korean spy. South Korea's main spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, denied that and that it has any relations with Kim.
Later Thursday, South Korea urged North Korea to quickly release Kim. "It's hard to understand calling one of our citizens who engages in pure religious activities an anti-state criminal," Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eui-do told a news conference.
Based largely in Dandong since 2007, Kim helped North Korean defectors get to South Korea via Thailand, Laos and other countries, according to a friend in Seoul, Joo Dongsik, who has shipped shoes, clothing and other items to Kim.
Recently, Kim had turned more to providing food and shelter to North Koreans who had received permission to go to China to look for jobs, often unsuccessfully, leaving them with no income and nowhere to go, said Joo, also a Baptist.
Over the past three or four years, Kim had told Joo numerous times that he wanted to sneak into North Korea to see how serious the food shortage there was, although Joo tried to dissuade him.
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 had happened to them and learn about the North's food shortage led him to enter the country last October, Joo said.
Kim was born in 1964, Joo said, making him 49 or 50.
At Thursday's new conference, Kim said his actions constitute a crime against North Korea's state and called himself a "criminal." He said he has not been mistreated.
It was not clear what kind of punishment Kim would receive, or why North Korean officials presented him to the media.Comment on this story
While North Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the government.
A similar news conference was held in January by another jailed missionary, American Kenneth Bae, who was detained while leading a tour in 2012 and later sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for what Pyongyang says was an attempt to topple its regime. 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.
Last week, an Australian, John Short, was arrested in Pyongyang for allegedly trying to distribute Christian materials. The North Korean government has not made any statements about the longtime Hong Kong resident, and no more details are known about his case.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.