SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said Saturday that it sentenced a South Korean Baptist missionary to hard labor for life for allegedly trying to set up underground churches and spying, the latest in a string of missionaries to run into trouble in the North.
North Korean state media said the missionary — called Kim Jong Uk in the North but previously called Kim Jung Wook in the South — was tried Friday and admitted to anti-North Korea religious acts and "malignantly hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the" North.
North Korea said in a dispatch dated Friday that Kim had defense counsel but the details of the trial could not be independently confirmed.
The unidentified 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.
North Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the government. Defectors from the country have said that the distribution of Bibles and secret prayer services can mean banishment to a labor camp or execution.
North Korea said the man 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.
South Korea has denied any spy links to Kim. 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.
Last year, North Korea sentenced American tour operator Kenneth Bae to 15 years of hard labor for committing "hostile acts" against the country.
Tensions are running high between the rival Koreas. North Korea has conducted a string of recent missile and artillery tests and unleashed hostile rhetoric insulting the leaders of the U.S. and South Korea.
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.
Earlier this year, an Australian, John Short, was arrested in Pyongyang for allegedly trying to distribute Christian materials. He was later released.