Missionary who was held in N. Korea arrives in US
Associated Press Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) – An American missionary who strode illegally into North Korea on Christmas Day and was detained by the communist regime for 43 days was welcomed back to the United States Saturday evening in an emotional reunion with family members at Los Angeles International Airport.
Robert Park was greeted by his parents and brother in a private location at the airport after arriving on a commercial flight from Beijing. Earlier Saturday, the 28-year-old Korean-American from Tucson, Ariz., flew to the Chinese capital from Pyongyang.
The family stopped briefly as they left the airport in their car. A thin and pale Park wouldn’t speak and kept his eyes downcast while his brother, Paul Park, told reporters that he’s in good condition.
“Hugging him, there didn’t seem to be anything broken,” he said.
Robert Park crossed the frozen Tumen River from China into North Korea on Dec. 25, carrying letters calling on leader Kim Jong Il to close the country’s notoriously brutal prison camps and step down from power – acts that could have risked execution in the hard-line communist country.
The family didn’t know Robert Park had planned to cross into North Korea until about 14 hours before he did it, Paul Park said. He said they were informed of the plan during an international phone call. He didn’t specify any further.
“I have to admit, I didn’t believe it until I saw it on the international news,” Paul Park said of his brother’s crossing into North Korea. “To say that the family wasn’t prepared would be putting it mildly.”
North Korea announced Friday that Park would be freed.
The family didn’t have time during their brief airport reunion to ask whether he had been mistreated by North Korean officials, Paul Park said. They also didn’t get a chance to ask him about a statement that North Korea attributed to him on Friday, he said.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency quoted Park as saying he was ashamed of the “biased” view he once held of the country.
Park said he was now convinced “there’s complete religious freedom for all people everywhere” in North Korea, citing the return of the Bible he carried as he entered the country and a service he attended at Pongsu Church in Pyongyang, KCNA said.
“I would not have committed such crime if I had known that the (North) respects the rights of all the people and guarantees their freedom and they enjoy a happy and stable life,” it quoted him as saying.
Park didn’t respond to questions from reporters when he arrived in Beijing about whether he had been speaking freely or under duress.
North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion but the government severely restricts religious observance, only allowing worship – primarily by foreigners – at sanctioned churches. Defectors say underground worship and the distribution of Bibles can mean banishment to a labor camp or execution.
KCNA said Park told the news agency he had felt compelled to go to North Korea to draw attention to reported rights abuses and mass killings, even if it meant risking his life.
North Korea is regarded as having one of the world’s worst human rights records, with some 154,000 political prisoners held in six camps across the country, according to the South Korean government.
Friends and family were startled and thrilled by the sudden release of Park, who was once described by his pastor as “unusually serious” when it came to religion.
“We are just elated that he’s been released safely,” the Rev. Madison Shockley, a Park family pastor in Carlsbad, California, said by phone earlier Saturday. “We cannot wait for him to land on American soil and to hear the truth of what he discovered there.”
Shockley said Park’s parents, both Korean immigrants, were told of the release by the State Department on Friday.
“We finally can relax,” said the Rev. John Benson, a pastor in Tucson, who ordained Park as a missionary. “We still had a little bit of reservation while he was still in North Korea. There was always a chance that they could change their mind.”
Paul Park said he was left completely speechless when he first spotted his brother walking off the plane. He said Robert Park cried during the encounter.
The family planned to feed him spaghetti for dinner – his favorite meal growing up.
“Right now, the biggest thing is, we love him and we’re excited to have him back,” Paul Park said. “And I’m really excited because I got to make probably the biggest of my New Year’s resolutions, which was to get him back home and give him a hug.”
Associated Press writers Cara Anna and Charles Hutzler in Beijing, Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles, Walter Berry in Phoenix, Elliot Spagat in San Diego, and Jean H. Lee and Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.