North Korean court sentences two South Korean's to a lifetime of hard labour for spying

The South's unification ministry voiced 'strong' regret over the North's decision to hand down the 'grave' punishment

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A North Korean court sentenced two South Korean’s to a lifetime of hard labour for spying on the secretive kingdom.

Kim Kuk-gi and Choe Chun-gil were convicted of conspiracy to overturn the state, espionage and illegal entry and of working under the control of the US and South Korean governments, according to the North's state run KCNA news agency.

“The crimes of the spies of the puppet intelligence agency prove that the United States and the puppet South are the masterminds of political terror and kingpins of trickery and show what miserable plight awaits those who conspire with them,” they agency said.

The defence counsel requested leniency after the prosecution sought the death penalty, it added.

South Korea’s unification ministry voiced “strong” regret over the North's decision to hand down the “grave” punishment, according to the Yonhap news agency.

"We call for the North to immediately free and repatriate the detainees. The government will do its best to bring them back home," the ministry added.

When the North announced the arrest of Kim and Choe in March, branded them "heinous terrorists."

At a press conference held in the North, Kim and Choe said that they were bribed by a senior agent from Seoul's spy agency to collect information on the communist nation and criticise its system, although it was widely thought that they had been coerced into making this statement.

Security agents from the North stood next to them at the time.

In addition to Kim and Choe, Pyongyang is holding a South Korean man with a US green card who was a student at New York University and a South Korean missionary.

Last year, Pyongyang released three detained Americans including Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary who had been held for two years.

The sentencing report came as the United Nations opened a field office in Seoul to investigate rights abuses in North Korea, a plan that has drawn anger from Pyongyang, which denies wrongdoing.

"Less than 50 miles from here lies another world marked by utmost repression and deprivation," Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said at the opening.

Last year detailed abuses “comparable to Nazi-era atrocities” were documented in a UN Commission of Inquiry report.