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North Korea frees Australian missionary

By Dana Ford and Tim Schwarz, CNN
March 3, 2014 -- Updated 1854 GMT (0254 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: John Short's wife says she has been told he has arrived in Beijing
  • "This is welcome news for Mr. Short, his family and his supporters," Australia says
  • Short, 75, was arrested last month in Pyongyang
  • He is accused of "secretly spreading his Bible tracts"

(CNN) -- North Korea has freed John Short, a 75-year-old Australian missionary whom it detained last month.

"The relevant organ decided to expel him from the territory of the DPRK, thanks to the tolerance of the law of the DPRK and in full consideration of his age," the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Monday.

The agency said Short "committed a criminal act by secretly spreading his Bible tracts around a Buddhist temple in Pyongyang," after entering the country as a tourist.

Short's wife, Karen, said she had been told by an Australian Embassy official that her husband had arrived in Beijing.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it had received confirmation that Short had been released and was being deported.

"Clearly, this is welcome news for Mr. Short, his family and his supporters," the department said.

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KCNA published a written apology that it attributed to Short.

"I now realize the seriousness of my insult to the Korean people on February 16th because I made the Korean people angry and for this I truly apologize.

"I realize that my actions are an indelible hostile act against the independent right and law of the DPRK.

"I request the forgiveness of the DPRK for my actions," Short reportedly wrote.

KCNA also accused him of "spreading his Bible tracts in the Pyongyang Metro on a crowded train, causing a chaos in the sound public order of the DPRK," in August 2012.

North Korea is known to push high-profile detainees to make false confessions.

Merrill Newman, an American veteran of the Korean War detained by North Korea last year, said that he was made to deliver an "apology" on state media that was not his own words.

Short's wife said last month that he had Gospel tracts in Korean with him in Pyongyang and that that issue seemed "to be at the core of the detention."

Short, a citizen of Australia, lives in Hong Kong.

North and South Korea hold first family reunion in three years

His wife said Monday she didn't yet know when he would arrive back in the city, a special administrative region of China.

"Australian consular officials stand ready to provide assistance to Mr. Short to ensure he can return to his home in Hong Kong as soon as possible," the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said.

Short has been arrested multiple times while doing evangelical work in China "for speaking out about brutality against Chinese Christians," according to a biography on a religious website named Gospel Attract.

In the 1990s, he became "persona non grata" with Chinese authorities for almost two years and was unable to visit mainland China, the biography said.

Last year, North Korea sentenced Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American, to 15 years of hard labor on charges he planned to topple the government through religious activities.

Washington has repeatedly called on Pyongyang to release Bae, expressing concerns about his health. But Kim Jong Un's regime has so far refused to budge.

Bae, 45, was widely reported to have been conducting missionary work in North Korea. His family says he ran a company specializing in tours of the secretive country.

North Korea has a number of state-controlled churches, but the authoritarian Communist regime doesn't tolerate independent religious activities.

The regime "considers the spread of Christianity a particularly serious threat, since it challenges ideologically the official personality cult and provides a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the realm of the state," a United Nations panel said in a report released last month.

"People caught practicing Christianity are subject to severe punishments in violation of the right to freedom of religion and the prohibition of religious discrimination," the report by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea said.

North Korea shows off South Korean man it's holding on spy charges

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