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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.

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Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department official now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, applauds Park’s “moral courage” – but not his deed.

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Park’s “excursion into North Korea was a foolhardy stunt that can’t help but complicate diplomacy,” he says. “It’s a gift to the Pyongyang regime, which can be expected to seek to bargain his freedom for diplomatic or PR advantage.”

He doubts “the White House or State Department will be inclined to want to give away anything to gain Park’s freedom, especially since he might decide in the future to do it again.” The case, he adds, is “not so much [an] embarrassment as an unnecessary encumbrance.”

Ha Tae-hyun, president of Open Radio for North Korea, points out one significant difference between the cases, however, that may not work in Park’s favor.

Ling and Lee “did not enter North Korea intentionally,” he says. “My assessment is emotionally Kim Jong-il will be very upset by this case.”

Mr. Ha, whose radio station beams two hours of news and views into North Korea every day from Seoul, notes that North Korea routinely punishes secret Christians. “If he were North Korean, he would be executed or go to a gulag,” says Ha.

In this case, he says, “I think Kim Jong-il needs time to think about it” – and the outcome will depend on Park’s utility as a diplomatic pawn.

“If he reaches the conclusion he’s useless, he will be expelled,” says Ha. “Another scenario is to negotiate his case with the US” – and demand “some aid from the US in return.”

Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who was expelled 10 years ago from North Korea and has been crusading against human rights abuses there ever since, believes the publicity surrounding Park’s entry into North Korea is a definite plus.

“I have to pay my respect to the Christian radicalism of Robert Park,” says Dr. Vollertsen. “I hope that there is a huge diplomatic issue, a controversial debate in all the newspapers and blogs calling him an idiot and making fun about his ‘insanity,’” he continues. “Jesus Christ was also very radical and called crazy.”

Whatever happens to him, Park is sure to appear as a hero to Christian activists as well as his family. His father, Pyong Park, in Tucson, Ariz., quoted him as telling him, “I’m not afraid to die as long as the whole world, every nation, pays attention to the North Korea situation."

Park is quoted in Korea as having declared, "I am an American citizen” bearing “God’s love” as he crossed the Tumen River border from China. “God loves you and God bless you," he was quoted by Jo Sung-rae of Pax Koreana as saying in Korean while two defectors from North Korea watched him walk across the river.

Park’s letter to Kim Jong-il declares the Lord “loves you and wants to save you and all of North Korea today.” The letter promises “food, provisions, medicines, necessities, and assistance to those who are struggling to survive” – if Kim Kong-il opens borders – and pleads for him to “allow care teams to enter to minister healing to those who have been tortured and traumatized."