US missionary freed by North Korea starts journey home
Associated Press Writer
BEIJING – Robert Park strode illegally into North Korea on Christmas Day, shouting “I brought God’s love” and carrying a Bible. When the communist regime released him Saturday, he left silent and pale.
As the American missionary made his way home to California, loved ones wondered how 43 days of detention in the world’s most secretive nation had taken their toll on the young man who so brashly demanded religious and political reforms.
Park, his eyes almost closed, made no comment as U.S. consular officials guided him to a transit area in Beijing’s airport after his morning arrival from Pyongyang.
He was to leave later in the day for the United States, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Susan Stevenson said.
In Washington, the State Department welcomed Park’s release. It said Park had asked the government not to provide specifics regarding his release.
The 28-year-old Korean-American 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.
North Korea disclosed nothing about Park during his 43 days in custody before announcing Friday that he would be freed and saying Park now viewed the nation favorably on religious freedom and human rights.
The North Korean government “decided to leniently forgive and release him, taking his admission and sincere repentance of his wrongdoings into consideration,” the official Korean Central News Agency said.
The report by North Korea’s government mouthpiece quoted Park, of Tucson, Arizona, as saying he was ashamed of the “biased” view he once held of the communist nation.
Park said he was now convinced “there’s complete religious freedom for all people everywhere” in North Korea, citing the return of his Bible 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 did not respond to questions from reporters Saturday asking 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.
After Park’s detention, analysts in South Korea said the North risked drawing attention to its human rights problems if it held Park for a long time.
This was the second time in less than a year that an American has been held by North Korea, which doesn’t have diplomatic ties with the U.S. Two journalists were released in August with former President Bill Clinton’s help after they were arrested at the border and sentenced to prison.
Last month, North Korea notified the U.S. that it has yet another American in custody for allegedly entering the country illegally. That person has not been identified by either Pyongyang or the U.S. State Department, which said Friday they still don’t have information on that detainee.
Friends and family were startled and thrilled Saturday 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. “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 and were very happy but almost in shock.
“The mother will only truly believe it when he is in her arms,” Shockley said.
Messages left for Park’s parents and brother were not immediately returned late Friday local time.
“We finally can relax,” said the Rev. John Benson, a pastor in Tucson, Arizona, 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.”
Benson said he was skeptical of Park’s statements Thursday, which he said sounded like “propaganda,” and said Park may be able to speak freely once he’s back in the U.S.
“It totally did not sound like Robert at all,” Benson said.
Park’s uncle in Los Angeles, Manchul Cho, said he was thrilled by the rapid developments after weeks of silence from Pyongyang.
“The progress has been so fast,” Cho said. “North Korea never talked about him. It was total darkness.”
Associated Press writers Charles Hutzler in Beijing, Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles, Walter Berry in Phoenix, Arizona, Elliot Spagat in San Diego, and Jean H. Lee and Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.