SEOUL, South Korea — A South Korean Baptist missionary held in North Korea appeared in a government-arranged news conference in Pyongyang on Thursday, saying that he had plotted to build underground churches in the isolated country to help undermine its government.
The missionary, Kim Jong-uk, 50, called himself a “criminal” and apologized for the “anti-state crime” he said he had committed against the North while working at the behest of the South’s National Intelligence Service.
North Korea announced in November that it had arrested a South Korean spy, but until Thursday it had rejected the South Korean government’s request to identify him.
It was unclear whether Kim was speaking his own mind during the government-arranged news conference, to which The Associated Press and other foreign journalists in Pyongyang were invited.
The North Korean government has used such news conferences in Pyongyang or interviews with the Choson Sinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan, to let Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary held in the North since late 2012, speak to the outside world.
Analysts have said that the North was using the news conferences to draw interest to the predicament of the detainees and force Washington to engage the North in dialogue.
Kim told the news conference Thursday that he entered the North with Bibles and other religious materials and movies on Oct. 7 and was arrested the following day. Before that, he said he was running an underground church in the Chinese city of Dandong, just over the North Korean border, to collect data from North Korean refugees that he would hand over to the South Korean intelligence agency. He received several thousand dollars from the agency, he said.
“I intended to change North Korea into a religious country and demolish the current North Korean government and political system,” he said, asking for the North’s leniency and his release. “I received cash from the National Intelligence Service and helped arrange North Koreans to spy for it.”
On Thursday, South Korea called for the immediate release of Kim and demanded that he have access to a lawyer, saying that the detention of a religious missionary on charges of committing an anti-state crime was “difficult to understand.” Officially, North Korea says it guarantees religious freedom.
Under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, however, North Korea has vowed to step up its efforts to block harmful influence from the outside, especially Christian messages.