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American missionary allegedly held by North Korea. A 'gift' to Pyongyang?

North Korea said it has detained a US citizen, widely believed to be Robert Park, a Korean-American missionary who crossed the border into North Korea with a message for the regime to close all labor camps. His fate could be tied up in the future of six-party talks.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / December 29, 2009

Robert Park in Seoul in this December 22 file photo. The US human rights activist trying to raise global attention about the suffering of the North Korean people had crossed the border into the state on Christmas Eve.

Lee Jae-Won/Reuters/File


A 28-year-old Korean-American crossed a frozen river border into North Korea on Christmas Eve with a message of “love and forgiveness” for leader Kim Jong-il but now appears to be in need of Mr. Kim’s mercy to be able to leave.

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Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency said Tuesday that “authorities” have detained a "US citizen" who entered North Korea “illegally” from China ,and that he’s “under investigation by a relevant organ.”

The person under detention is assumed to be Robert Park, who walked across the ice of the narrow Tumen River bearing a letter that a South Korean website quotes as asking him to “open your borders,” “close down all concentration camps and release all political prisoners…..”

That message is sure to upset North Korean authorities, who deny any human rights abuses, but the question now is how much difficulty Mr. Park faces before Kim Jong-il decides it’s time to let him go.

The case “could be a touchstone or bellwether of how US-Korean relations are going,” says Aidan Foster-Carter, a long-time Korea expert based in England. “I imagine, if they want to make a point, they will hold him a while.”

The fate of Mr. Park, leader of a coalition of Christian activists that is conducting a worldwide campaign on North Korean human rights abuses, may revolve around US efforts at getting North Korea to return to six-party talks on its nuclear weapons program. Stephen Bosworth, US envoy on North Korea, visited the North earlier this month for what he described as “useful” talks on a wide range of issues that might come up in the context of negotiations.

Mr. Foster-Carter, honorary fellow at Leeds University, says the case “causes at least a minor headache for the US State Department,” but adds, “I don’t think they’ll hold him for very long” – “a few months maximum.”

The case conjures memories of two American TV journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were picked up in March along the Tumen River border while filming a story about North Korean refugees for Current TV network. They were held for 140 days and sentenced to 12 years in prison, before former US President Bill Clinton arrived on a chartered jet in early August, met and dined for three hours with Kim Jong-il, and then returned to California with both of them safely aboard his plane.

'A gift to the Pyongyang regime'

A State Department spokesman indicated the US is concerned but still awaiting confirmation that Park is being held. That word should come from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which handles diplomatic issues for the US in the absence of US relations with Pyongyang. The Swedish ambassador also called on Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee while they were being held in what was described as “a state guest house.