North Korea yesterday expelled to Beijing the Hong Kong-based missionary it had accused of distributing religious materials.
Australian John Short, 75, was released after he gave North Korean authorities a written confession apologising for spreading Bible tracts at a temple on February 16, the birthday of the late "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il.
"I request the forgiveness of the DPRK for my actions. I am willing to bow down on my knees to request this tolerance of the DPRK and the Korean people," he wrote, referring to the full name of the country, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Watch: North Korea deports detained Hong Kong-based Australian missionary
Short, who has lived in Hong Kong for 50 years but is not a permanent resident, was met by Australian consular officials on arrival in Beijing.
The North Korean state-run KCNA news agency said he was freed partly in consideration for his age. The missionary arrived on a group tour in Pyongyang on February 15 and was arrested the next day.
His wife, Karen (pictured yesterday after news of the release), went public on February 19 with news of his disappearance. She had remained in Hong Kong.
Short's detention became known via David Wong, a mainland Chinese colleague who was in Pyongyang with him and was also questioned by police. Wong was allowed to return to China on February 18.
An analyst in South Korea saw the release as the North making an effort to show a soft side. It follows a United Nations report published on February 17 saying North Korean security chiefs should face justice over abuses comparable to Nazi-era atrocities.
"With the UN human rights report out, they don't want to be isolated in the international arena, so they showed a softer policy towards Australia," said Kim Han-kwon, director of the Centre for China Policy at the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, an independent think tank.
Kim said China had probably also advised a gentler approach. "With Kenneth Bae, it's a matter of North Korea and the US, and they have to show a strong position," he said.
Dr Leonid Petrov, a Korea specialist at the Australian National University, said the release "indicates human rights in North Korea, at least where foreign nationals are concerned, are respected".
Australia has no diplomatic representation in North Korea. Stockholm handles diplomatic matters on Canberra's behalf.
Karen Short, 57, said she would probably join her husband in Beijing.
"I'm so thankful; God has been with us in this," she said. "It's been quite an ordeal. He needs a few days to pause and think about what's happened."
Separately, a South Korean missionary confessed last week to spying and trying to build an underground church in the country.
Additional reporting by Associated Press and Patrick Boehler