Updated: 03/03/2014 11:43 | By Agence France-Presse

North Korea deports detained Australian missionary

North Korea Monday deported a 75-year-old Australian missionary detained since last month for allegedly distributing religious materials.

North Korea deports detained Australian missionary

KCNA handout photo provided on March 3, 2014 shows Australian missionary John Short making an official apology at an undisclosed location in North Korea - by Kns

Hong Kong-based John Short was arrested after leaving "Bible tracts" in a Buddhist temple in the capital Pyongyang during a tour.

The North's state-run KCNA news agency said the "generous" decision to release and expel Short had been taken in light of his advanced age and a signed "confession" and apology.

A copy of Short's statement was released along with photos showing him affixing his thumb in red ink to the document which he also signed and read out.

"I realise that my actions are an indelible hostile act against the independent right and laws of the (North)," the confession read.

"I request forgiveness ... and am willing to bow down on my knees," it said.

Confessions and self-criticisms -- scripted by the authorities -- are normally a pre-requisite for detained foreigners seeking release in North Korea. 

Short's statement stated that US and other western media reports labelling the North as a closed country without religious freedoms were "inaccurate and wrong".

Although freedom of worship is enshrined in North Korea's constitution, it does not exist in practice and religious activity is severely restricted to officially-recognised groups linked to the government.

In his statement, Short also admitted distributing religious texts on the Pyongyang subway during a previous tour to the North in 2012.

"I now realise the seriousness of my insult to the Korean people ... and for this I truly apologise," it said.

Australia has no diplomatic representation in North Korea, but its foreign ministry said it had confirmed Short's release through the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang.

"Clearly this is welcome news," the ministry said.

Short's wife, Karen Short, told AFP in Hong Kong that she was "amazingly thankful".

She said the Australian authorities had told her he was believed to be on the flight to Beijing.

Pyongyang views foreign missionaries as seditious elements intent on fomenting unrest and those who are caught engaging in any activities in the North are subject to immediate arrest. 

A number of missionaries -- mostly US citizens -- have been arrested in the past with some allowed to return home after interventions by high-profile US figures. 

Pyongyang is currently holding US citizen Kenneth Bae, described by a North Korean court as a militant Christian evangelist. 

He was arrested in November 2012 and later sentenced to 15 years' hard labour on charges of seeking to topple the government. 

A South Korean missionary, Kim Jeong-Wook, has also been detained since last October. 

In a televised press conference staged in Pyongyang last week, Kim "confessed" to anti-government activities including helping organise underground churches for North Korean refugees in China and spying for Seoul's intelligence authorities. 

Seoul denied Kim's involvement with the intelligence agency and demanded his immediate release.

North-South Korean relations have shown tangible signs of a thaw in recent months, but the start of South-US joint military drills last week has soured the atmosphere, with Pyongyang conducting a series of short-range missile tests in an apparent show of strength.

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