South Korean missionary who founded church in North Korea sentenced to life in prison

Kim Jong UkChristian World News video screenshot

South Korea released a statement Sunday insisting that Baptist missionary Kim Jong Uk be released from a North Korean prison.

Kim was sentenced to a life term of hard labor on Friday for alleged espionage activities and attempts to overthrow the North Korean government.

The missionary admitted in court to founding a church in the atheist country. Joo Dong-sik, a friend of Kim's, told the Associated Press that the 45-year-old also helped North Koreans escape into South Korea by leading them through Laos, Thailand, and other countries. A South Korean Unification Ministry official said that neither Kim's family nor attorneys have been able to visit him.

"It is regrettable that North Korea went ahead with perfunctory trial procedures in a unilateral manner and gave our citizen severe punishment," a statement read.

South Korea has been urging the North to release Kim since his October arrest.

"We have demanded North Korea free and repatriate Kim on several occasions, but it has not responded to our and the international community's legitimate demand," the statement continued.

"This clearly violates the international norms as well as universal value of humanitarian spirit."

North Korea has held Korean-American Kenneth Bae in prison for over 18 months—the longest North Korean imprisonment of an American since the Korean War. It has been reported that Bae's North Korean tour company was a front for Christian evangelical missions, and that Bae was carrying illegal materials—perhaps a Bible or damaging information against the North Korean government.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson was unsuccessful in securing Bae's release, as was former NBA star Dennis Rodman's request to Kim Jong-un that he "cut Kenneth Bae loose." Rodman is a close friend of the North Korean Supreme Leader, and has been criticized for past implications that Bae's imprisonment is not unjust.

Bae was sentenced to 15 years hard labor in April 2013.